Press briefing notes on US Supreme Court ruling on death penalty

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights : Ravina Shamdasani
Location : Geneva

Date : 30 May 2014

On Tuesday (27 May), the Supreme Court of the United States issued one of its most important rulings with regard to the use of the death penalty against people with mental and intellectual disabilities. The case involved a death row prisoner in the state of Florida.

Until now, the state of Florida has refused to review any evidence about a defendant’s purported intellectual disability unless she or he scored 70 or below on an IQ test. The defendant in this particular case had scored 71 on one IQ test. The US Supreme Court ruled in this case that it was unconstitutional to refuse to take into account mental factors other than an IQ test. The Court stated that “intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”

The ruling will affect not only Florida, which is the state with the second-largest number of people on death row after California, but also other states that still use the death penalty in the US. Judges will now be required to take a less mechanical approach to mental disability in capital cases.

In 2002, the Supreme Court made it clear in the Atkins vs. Virginia case that no state may execute people with mental disabilities. Tuesday’s decision of the US Supreme Court in the Florida case picks up where Atkins v. Virginia left off, making it clearer now who counts as an individual with intellectual disabilities.

In its judgment, the Court also stated that : “The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose. Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world.”

We welcome the Supreme Court’s ruling as a significant step towards limiting the scope of the death penalty in the United States, and we urge US authorities to go further and to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.

ENDS

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