11th Circuit upholds strict standard for proving disability in capital case

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A Georgia statute requiring defendants to prove they have a mental disability “beyond a reasonable doubt” to become ineligible for the death penalty does not violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment,” according to a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit decision released Wednesday.

News from Georgia

Georgia remains the only state nationwide to require such a stringent standard. The decision affirmed a June 6-1 Georgia Supreme Court decision upholding the standard in a related death penalty case.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ended the death penalty for people with mental disabilities in its landmark Atkins v. Virginia decision, it left it to the states to create standards for determining whether individuals have disabilities.

The seven justices in the majority argued that they were bound by the Supreme Court’s precedent to allow the Georgia’s statute to stand, and that the state provides a variety of other safeguards to prevent executions of people with mental disabilities.

“In the 219-year history of our nation’s Bill of Rights, no United States Supreme Court decision has ever suggested, much less held, that a burden of proof standard on its own can so wholly burden an Eighth Amendment right as to eviscerate or deny that right,” the court stated.

The four justices in dissent countered that the decision effectively guts the purpose of the Atkins decision. Even if the Supreme Court didn’t specify a standard for proving mental disabilities, the dissent argued that courts have long monitored states to ensure they are providing substantive due process rights to ensure constitutional rights are not violated.

Noting the inherently subjective nature of determining mental disability, the dissent argues that the decision effectively means that only people with the most severe disabilities are ineligible for the death penalty in Georgia. For the most part, this population’s disabilities are so severe that they would be unable to murder anyways, underscoring the importance of the Atkin‘s decision’s emphasis on protecting people with all forms of mental disabilities.

“Taken to its logical conclusion in this case, such deference permits states to adopt procedures that effectively exclude nearly every mentally retarded offender from the protection of Atkins,” the dissent stated.

In 1989, Georgia became the first state to abolish the death penalty for people with disabilities. However, 22 death row inmates in the past two decades have argued that their disabilities should bar them from execution, with just one successfully proving he was ineligible “beyond  a reasonable doubt.”

A lawyer for the defendant told the Atlanta Journal-Institution that the decision will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.