In its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the execution of persons with intellectual disability violates the Eight Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Sixteen years later, the psychological and legal communities continue to grabble with the complexities of the decision and its reception. They have a new tool with the release of Intellectual Disability and the Death Penalty: Current Issues and Controversies (Prager, 2017), by Professors John Blume and Marc Tassé. The book was celebrated at the Law School on April 26.
Sandra Babcock, clinical professor of law, moderated the event, with comments by Eric M. Freedman, Siggi B. Wilzig Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Rights at Hofstra University’s Maurice A. Deane School of Law; Karen Salekin, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama; and Sheri Johnson, James and Mark Flanagan Professor of Law at Cornell Law School. Also speaking were the book’s authors: Marc Tassé, professor & director of Ohio State’s Nisonger Center; and John Blume, Samuel F. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques; director of Clinical, Advocacy and Skills Programs; and director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project.
Johnson, who has collaborated with Blume on many death penalty cases involving intellectual disability, spoke to the book’s relevance even to audiences who may not be involved in such work, calling it “a great example of thinking about the uneasy interface of law and psychology.”
Freedman lauded the book’s practical value, particularly as a ready source of empirical data. He also addressed what he sees as the difficulties in getting decisonmakers to accept the categorical nature of Atkins. Of course a conscientious decision-maker would take intellectual disability into account, he said, but the nexus between that disability and the facts of the case is one that they find of concern. He argued that a difficulty advocates face in their work is that a blanket exclusion of persons with intellectual disability from the death penalty may be to the left of “where the center of the country is.”
Approaching the book from her perspective as a clinical forensic psychologist, Salekin praised it for providing accessible guidance both to psychological experts and to lawyers and judges. She had concerns, however, regarding the authors’ criteria for experts on intellectual disability—a controversial issue in a milieu that includes both forensic psychologists and intellectual disability specialists. Salekin cautioned that the language used by Blume and Tassé, if formally adopted, could result in the disqualification of many competent experts.
Blume expressed thanks for his clients with intellectual disability, in particular his first such client, Limmie Arthur, whom he met on death row in 1987, fifteen years before Atkins. In the wake of the 2002 decision, Blume noted, some recalcitrant states continue to deviate from the Supreme Court’s mandate because they are resistant to the decision’s fundamental premise that persons with intellectual disability should not be subject to execution.