Committee worries defining retardation in death cases would further complicate trials | NevadaAppeal.com

Committee worries defining retardation in death cases would further complicate trials

The legislative committee studying Nevada’s death penalty statutes was urged Thursday to exempt the mentally retarded from capital punishment.

But Sen. Mark James, R-Las Vegas, questioned how lawmakers would define mental retardation and how someone would be labeled as retarded.

University of Nevada, Reno psychology professor Larry Williams said diagnosing someone as mentally retarded is a fairly well defined process involving testing of their IQ and their ability to cope with the world around them in 10 areas.

James made it clear he sees problems in writing legislation that would set guidelines for that process.

“Aren’t we cutting some pretty fine distinctions here?” he asked.

“I think there’s a large question of whether any of this is possible,” said James, a lawyer and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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Washoe District Attorney Dick Gammick amplified his comments, saying the debate over whether someone was too retarded to be charged with capital murder would further complicate the cases.

“We do not need another boulder thrown into the road called mental retardation,” he said.

Gammick argued that retardation can already be considered a mitigating factor at sentencing and can be argued throughout the trial by the defense.

But he said exempting the retarded from capital punishment based on a psychological evaluation would degenerate into a battle between defense and prosecution experts because it would be impossible to write a clear rule.

“You’re not going to be able to draw a black and white line,” he said.

The committee also heard testimony over whether the state should ban execution of persons under age 16. Nevada is among a minority of states which allow execution of juveniles.

They were told Nevada is one of only two or three states which execute juveniles and that even the U.S. government has set a minimum of 18 for capital punishments.