Mentally retarded people should be exempt from death penalty Essay

The issue of capital punishment especially death penalty has raised debate in different sectors of the society. However, of notable concern is the aspect that people who are mentally challenged should not face the same fate as their normal counterparts in as far as death penalty is concerned. As such, this paper seeks to paper critically discuss this argument through carrying an analysis of an article by Caplan (February 19, 2013) entitled “Last chance for Warren Lee Hill” published in The New York Times. The paper will also outline the author’s ethos, logos and pathos in his attempt to persuade the targeted audiences to share the same ideas and opinions with him. Therefore, the main thesis of the paper is that people with mental illness should be exempt from death penalty.

In this case, Warren Lee Hill, an intellectually disabled inmate with an I.Q. of 70, was scheduled for execution on the 19th of February 2013 for crimes related to murder. However, the Supreme Court had banned capital punishment to people who are mentally challenged. According to Caplan (2013), “In 2002, the Supreme Court banned capital punishment for the intellectually disabled. But, alone among the states, Georgia requires a defendant to prove such a disability beyond a reasonable doubt, a heavy a burden of proof because it is so easy for a state to cast doubt on evidence concerning mental capacity.” This case is significant in that it is of public interest and has drawn a lot of interest and criticism from different sectors of the society.

With an I.Q. of 70, it can be seen beyond any reasonable doubt that Mr. Hill meets the criteria for mental retardation. The three doctors who had tested Mr. Hill in 2000 and concluded that he did not meet the criteria for mental retardation later reversed their decision which gave Mr. Hill another chance from being executed for the crime he had committed. Therefore, it can be noted that execution of people with mental retardation requires careful attention since it may violate the rights of these mentally challenged people. The decision to review the judgment in this case came in the work of the fact that the accused person is mentally challenged. This has been done in an effort to accord the accused person a fair trial.

The targeted audience for this particular story involves all citizens since it is a matter of public interest. The issue of capital punishment is topical in that some people in different sections of the society argue that it should be abolished. Many people argue that execution of people who have committed heinous crimes should be abolished as a result of various reasons. In some cases, the crime would not be intentional. In case of a person who is mentally retarded, it can be argued that capital punishment is too gross as a result of the fact that a mentally challenged person does not reason in a logical manner like other normal people. Therefore, the targeted audiences of this story include ordinary people, academics as well as people working in the legal profession since it is their duty to defend the rights of all people regardless of their mental state.

According to article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948), “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.” It can be noted in the case of Mr. Hill that he is still innocent until proven guilty by the court of law that has the duty of ensuring that justice prevails. Regardless of her mental state that is retarded, Mr. Hill has the right to equitable and fair trial that is not prejudiced on the fact that he has committed a heinous crime. The UDHR also states that no one shall face a heavier penalty than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed. The glaring facts in the story posit to the effect that the crime was committed in 2000 and the doctors who examined Mr Hill’s mental state were inexperienced for that particular task. As such, they erred when they made the decision that the accused person did not meet the conditions to be regarded as mentally retarded.

In this particular case, the ethos is related to the stance taken by the three doctors who examined the accused person in order to test his mental condition. The three of them reversed their earlier decision they had made with one of them saying that he was still junior and had little experience in issues of psychiatry, the reason why he decided to reverse the decision. The other involved doctors also decided to withdraw the earlier judgment citing the same reason. In making this unanimous decision to reverse the decision, it can be seen that the doctors have taken some ethical considerations in the dispensation of their duties. As qualified medical practitioners, they are the custodians of the society and they should act in an impartial and rational way such that their decisions do not violate the rights of the other people. In making this decision, the doctors are trying to appeal to ethics as a means of trying to convince the interested parties in this case about their credibility in making the decision that would be used as final in the court of law in this trail of Mr. Hill.

Caplan (2013) also tries to appeal to the emotions of the targeted audiences in the highlighted story above. This is commonly known as pathos. For instance, he argues that Georgia requires a defendant to prove such a disability beyond a reasonable doubt, a heavy a burden of proof because it is so easy for a state to cast doubt on evidence concerning mental capacity. He also states that with an I.Q. of 70, it can be seen beyond any reasonable doubt that Mr. Hill meets the criteria for mental retardation. The author of this story is trying to appeal to the emotions of the targeted audiences so that they can also share his own ideas and opinions towards this sensitive issue. The author is trying to spark debate in the interest of the public and the accused person such that he can be in a position to get fair trial as required by both national and international law. As interested parties in the trial of Mr. Hill, the targeted audiences will raise their concerns that can help in reviewing the aspect of capital punishment.

In most cases, mentally retarded people do not think or reason in a logical fashion like normal people. Freud (1974 as cited in Meyer, Moore and Viljoen, 1995) argues that psychological disorders are caused by an imbalance in the structure of personality. Meyer, Moore and Viljoen (1995) also state that the ego is too weak to handle conflict between the id and the superego effectively and there both historical and contemporary causes of this condition. However, the bottom line is that this mental condition makes a person affected to behave in an abnormal way. He or she cannot reason in a logical way like other normal people. Such people often display queer behaviour such as aggression and violence. This kind of behaviour can lead to injury or even death of other people but it can be seen that the accused person does not reason like normal people. People with psychological disorders are often treated as outcasts in different societies as a result of the behaviour they exhibit (Geldard, 1962). Therefore, in the event that the affected person has committed a serious offence that warrantees capital punishment, his mental condition should be taken into consideration as a mitigating factor since he cannot control his behaviour. This helps to ensure that justice prevails among the mentally retarded people.

The author of the article uses logos in a bid to appeal to logic as well as trying to persuade the audience through reason. The author argues that common sense should prevail in as far as equality is concerned with regards to the way people are treated. Under international law, every person has a right to equality and fair treatment. This should also be applied to Mr. Hill who is facing execution as a result of the heinous crime which he allegedly committed in 2000. Despite the fact that he is mentally challenged, it can be seen that he has a right to equality and fair treatment. Caplan (2013) is trying to convince the targeted audiences that Mr. Hill also has the right to equal treatment regardless of his mental state which is retarded. Failure to take this aspect into consideration is tantamount to discrimination since this stance is likely to prejudice the accused person in the outcome of the judgment.

Over and above, it can be seen that people with mental disorders often exhibit abnormal behaviours that are different from other people who are normal. Such people can be violent and they can commit crimes that lead to loss of life which may warranty death penalty. However, as discussed above, it can be concluded that mentally retarded people should be exempted from death penalty since they do not reason in a logical manner like their normal fellows. The fact that a person who has committed a heinous crime acts beyond his capacity should be treated as a mitigating factor in the event that he has committed a crime which deserves capital punishment.


Caplan, L. (19 February 2013). “Last chance for Warren Lee Hill.” The New York Times.

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Freud, S. (1974). The standard edition of the complete psychological works. London:

Hogarth Press.

Geldard, F.A (1962). Fundamentals of psychology. NY: Wiley International.

Meyer, W.F., Moore, C. & Viljoen, H.G. (1995). Personality theories- from Freud to Frankl.

Johannesburg: Lexicon Publishers.

United Nations Department of Public information. Universal Declaration of Human Rights