I have wondered countless times over the past 30 years whether I would live to see the end of the death penalty in the United States. I now know that day will come, and I believe that the current Supreme Court will be its architect.
In its ruling in Hall v. Florida in May, the court — with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy at the helm — reminded us that the core value animating the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishments clause is the preservation of human dignity against the affront of unnecessarily harsh punishment. Hall, which prohibited a rigid test in use in Florida for gauging whether a defendant is intellectually disabled, was the most recent in a series of opinions in which the court has juxtaposed retribution — the idea of vengeance for a wrongdoing, which serves as the chief justification for the death penalty — with a recognition of our hopelessly complex and fallible human nature.
What was important about Hall is the way Kennedy described the logic behind exempting intellectually disabled individuals from execution: “to impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being” because the “diminished capacity of the intellectually disabled lessens moral culpability and hence the retributive value of the punishment.” Though the court previously barred imposition of the death penalty upon intellectually disabled people, as well as juvenile offenders, Hall marked the first time that it went so far as to claim that imposing the death penalty upon offenders with these kinds of functional impairments serves “no legitimate penological purpose.”
This is why I see an end coming to the death penalty in this country. The overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the court termed in Hall to be diminished culpability. Severe functional deficits are the rule, not the exception, among the individuals who populate the nation’s death rows. A new study by Robert J. Smith, Sophie Cull and Zoë Robinson, published in Hastings Law Journal, of the social histories of 100 people executed during 2012 and 2013 showed that the vast majority of executed offenders suffered from one or more significant cognitive and behavioral deficits.
One-third of the offenders had intellectual disabilities, borderline intellectual function or traumatic brain injuries, a similarly debilitating impairment. For example, the Texas Department of Corrections determined that Elroy Chester had an IQ of 69. He attended special education classes throughout school and never functioned at a higher level than third grade. The state had previously enrolled Chester into its Mentally Retarded Offenders Program. Despite these findings, Texas executed him on June 12, 2013.
More than half of the 100 had a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder or psychosis. For example, for more than 40 years, Florida’s own psychiatrists found that John Ferguson suffered from severe mental illness. Ferguson had a fixed delusion that he was the “Prince of God” who could not be killed and would rise up after his execution and fight alongside Jesus to save the United States from a communist plot. When Ferguson was executed on Aug. 5, 2013, his last words were: “I just want everyone to know that I am the Prince of God and I will rise again.” A Florida court had called Mr. Ferguson’s delusions “normal Christian beliefs.”
Many other executed offenders endured unspeakable abuse as children. Consider Daniel Cook, whose mother drank alcohol and abused drugs while she was pregnant with him. His mother and grandparents molested him as a young child, and his father physically abused him by, for example, lighting a cigarette and using it to burn Daniel’s genitals. Eventually the state placed Daniel in foster care, but the abuse didn’t stop. A foster parent chained him nude to a bed and raped him while other adults watched from the next room through a one-way mirror. The prosecutor responsible for Cook’s death sentence stood behind him during the clemency process, telling authorities that he would have taken the death penalty off of the table had he known of his torturous childhood. Arizona refused to commute Cook’s sentence, however, and he died by lethal injection on Aug. 8, 2012.
As the execution of Elroy Chester, John Ferguson, Daniel Cook and many more like them illustrates, barring the death penalty for intellectually disabled and juvenile offenders did not solve the death penalty’s dignity problem. Rather, those cases gave us cause to look more closely at the people whom we execute. And when you look closely, what you find is that the practice of the death penalty and the commitment to human dignity are not compatible.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. is a professor at Harvard Law School.