Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Legislation Prohibiting Death Penalty for Mentally Challenged Moves in State Senate

Nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that applying the death penalty to someone with a mental disability is unconstitutional, and called on states to craft their own guidelines on how to implement the decision, Pennsylvania's legislature is taking up the issue - again. The state legislature has considered similar measures in the House or Senate a number of times over the years.

This month the state Senate approved a bill that allows lawyers for a defendant in a capital case to request a hearing before the trial to determine if the defendant is eligible for the death penalty. The burden of proof would be on the defendant. If the judge rules in favor of the defendant, the case would move forward as a non-capital trial. In the case of a defendant who has already been sentenced to death, a similar procedure would take place.

David Harris, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law explained that the lag time between the high court ruling and state action is not a-typical.

"As long as the state is not imposing the death penalty on anyone that might qualify as mentally disabled, [the lack of guidelines] isn't a problem. But as soon as they get close to doing something like that, it becomes a problem," said Harris.

Because the state executes so few people, Harris calls the death penalty more symbolic rather than an actual issue. Nonetheless, he says a state must have clear laws that follow the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions.

"Because if it doesn't, it sets itself up for endless appeals and trips through the legal system which are just unnecessary and incredibly expensive," said Harris.

Pennsylvania has executed a total of three people since 1976. There are currently 208 inmates on death row.