A capital murder defendant in Pennsylvania would be ineligible for the death penalty if a judge determines, before the start of the trial, that the defendant is mentally retarded, under legislation that was the subject of a House Judiciary hearing on Tuesday, August 17.  

The sponsor of the bill (SB 268), Mary Jo White, R-Venango, told committee members that having a mentally retarded defendant sit through a trial and then later having a jury determine his mental status “doesn’t make sense.”  

“It might be possible to devise a very fair process of a post-trial determination, but why would we do it? Capital cases are expensive.”  

In some Pennsylvania counties, the judge establishes the defendant’s mental status before the trial. In others, the jury establishes the status after the trial.  

On the other side of the argument, the state’s District Attorneys support the post-trial determination.  

“Our position is often misinterpreted that we support the death penalty for the mentally retarded convicted of capital murder,” said Rich Long, Director of the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association.  

“We don’t. We agree with the Supreme Court that the mentally retarded should not be put to death. We just believe that juries are better at that determination.”  

The Senate measures stems from a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Atkins v. Virginia, that forbids executing the mentally retarded. The ruling set no guidelines for determining a defendant’s mental state.