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Senate approves bill to spare retared inmates' lives

The House has a similar bill, and Gov. Jeb Bush says he supports the measures.

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001

The House has a similar bill, and Gov. Jeb Bush says he supports the measures.

TALLAHASSEE -- The state Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday to ensure that mentally retarded prisoners are not executed.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Richard Mitchell, D-Jasper, passed 40-0 with no debate.

The measure does not contain a set IQ level, but uses a definition that considers intellectual functioning and behavior.

The Senate passed the same measure last year, but it did not clear the House.

A similar version is moving again this year in the House, and Gov. Jeb Bush has said he supports the measures, which also are backed by prosecutors and the Association for Retarded Citizens.

The legislation comes as the courts and some legislatures around the country are moving to limit executions of mentally retarded murderers.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would decide whether the execution of mentally retarded murderers meant that such executions should be deemed unconstitutional as "cruel and unusual punishment" in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The case of North Carolina death row inmate Ernest P. McCarver, with an IQ of 67, will be argued next fall.

Experts say about 10 percent of the 3,600 prisoners on death row are mentally retarded, meaning they have IQ scores of less than 70.

Twelve years ago, the last time the Supreme Court considered the question, only two states with the death penalty, Georgia and Maryland, barred execution of the retarded. Since then, 11 more states have rejected the death penalty for retarded killers, and Florida is among the other states that are considering legislation to do so.

In Florida, prosecutors opposed such bills, but they helped write this year's version with a key change, said Jerry Blair, the state attorney in Live Oak and vice president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

Previously, prosecutors were worried that the system would be slowed by the need for every capital murder defendant to seek a hearing on whether he or she was retarded.

This year's bill would have defendants who are sentenced to death seek such a determination after sentencing instead of beforehand.

"Now it's a safety net at the back end that will ensure that we do not execute the mentally retarded," Blair said.

Even if no law reaches him, Bush has vowed not to sign death warrants for mentally retarded prisoners.

"He might not, but could there be another (governor) in the future that may?" asked Mitchell.

Mitchell said mentally retarded killers have to be imprisoned but often don't understand what they've done.

"I'm not saying they are not responsible for their actions," Mitchell said. But he said the death penalty is the ultimate penalty, and mentally retarded killers don't have the level of understanding of their crimes to warrant that, he said.

- The New York Times contributed to this report.

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