Pa. House considers death penalty changes for the mentally disabled

    The Pennsylvania House is considering whether to change death penalty rules to allow judges to determine if a defendant is mentally disabled. Under federal law a mentally disabled person can not be put to death. Currently a jury makes that determination.

    For the first time in nearly a century, Virginia has put a woman to death. Her lawyers say she was borderline mentally disabled. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are considering a bill that would change who determines whether a person facing the death penalty is mentally retarded.

    In 2002 the US Supreme Court ruled that people with mental retardation cannot be executed. But the ruling left it up to the states to figure out how courts would decide if a defendant is mentally disabled. The Pennsylvania House is now considering a bill that would have judges make that decision before a person stands trial.  Currently, a jury makes that decision after the person is convicted.

    The state’s District Attorneys Association opposes the bill. Ed Marsico is the District Attorney of Dauphin County. Marsico says that would allow judges who oppose the death penalty to rule in the defendants’ favor.

    “It’s going to give defendants who aren’t mentally retarded, who don’t have any evidence of retardation an opportunity to now raise that issue,” he says.

    Marsico says it could delay trials.

    But those who favor the bill say death qualified jurors who have already convicted a person would be biased against ruling the person is mentally retarded.

    They say having a judge make the determination ahead of time would save the state money by avoiding an expensive capital trial. Stephen Suroviec, the executive director of ARC of Pennsylvania, a group that advocates for those with intellectual disabilities, supports the bill.

    “If people with mental retardation are not eligible for capital punishment then it’s illogical to have them go through a capital trial only to find out afterwards that they weren’t eligible for a capital trial in the first place,” he says.

    The bill has already passed in the Pennsylvania Senate.

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