In its issue of March 8th in an article titled Death for the mentally disabled London based newspaper The Economist unequivocally argued for not carrying out the execution of the mentally retarded among those on the death row. The newspaper has been consistently against the idea of death penalty and this was a special instance. The focus was on how IQ is being used/misused to determine sanity, with or without taking into account accepted statistical variations in IQ values. This was the way I understood it. And, I accepted its argument.
It began the piece citing the case of one Ricky Ray Rector who was “so feeble minded that he said he would save the pecan pie from his last meal ‘for later’”. This was a thunderbolt of a start for the piece. And, this is where the problem was.
In its issue of March 22nd, it carries a letter from one Toby Poynder from London that points out that Rector became insane much later and was not so when he committed a crime. The insanity was caused by a botched suicide attempt by Rector” “Rector shot himself in the head.” The letter writer goes on to ask, “Surely it is the mental state of the accused at the time of the murder that is relevant?”
Ouch, that must hurt the editor of the newspaper. The opening sentence of their opening argument was shattered to pieces! This was my first reaction to reading this letter. The thunderbolt has been dulled of its potency.
Later on, my bias against death penalty, not just in this case but universally, let me build up further arguments against what the letter writer posed rhetorically. One of the justifications for death penalty is that the society will be rid of one menace, the condemned. But, the life of Rector was terminated when he, having lost his druthers, would not have been a threat to anyone, including himself. Remember, even when he was sane, he failed in taking his own life!
This led me to question why then Rector was put to death. The article sort of elucidates. Accommodating statistics will “double the number of people who are eligible for [the insanity] exemption” from death penalty. The letter writer appears not to have reckoned this slant, that there may be an upper limit to the number of people to be given exemptions and any particular death row inmate going to the gallows or not depends on this number and not on whether he was mentally retarded, at the time of committing the crime or when being taken to receive the death penalty drug protocol.
Is that any kind of justice, even of the statistical kind? I think not.