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When is the death penalty unconstitutional?

31-Aug-2015

Recently, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended against clemency for a death row inmate whose attorneys claim is insane. Although the parole board failed to recommend clemency for 50-year-old Benjamin Robert Cole, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to put to death an inmate who is insane. Because Cole's mental health is in question, a Pittsburg County District Judge held a hearing to determine whether or not Cole is sane. 

Cole's attorneys argue that he has been incapable of assisting in his own defense and say that his condition has deteriorated steadily since he was convicted of the child abuse murder of his 9-month-old daughter in 2002. A forensic psychiatrist testified that during one session with Cole, the inmate was virtually catatonic and did not make contact or communicate during the hour-long session. Another investigator testified that during interviews, Cole mostly rambled about religion and the end times, and that she was unable to understand his "ministry." However, Anita Trammell, warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, says that she has been able to engage in conversation with Cole on multiple occasions.   

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is constitutional, and it recently upheld Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol. However, the nation's highest court does not approve the death penalty under all circumstances, and it has found the death penalty to be unconstitutional under the following conditions:

  • In Roberts v. Louisiana (1976), the court ruled that a mandatory death sentence for first degree murder is unconstitutional. 
  • In Coker v. Georgia (1977), the court ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for the rape of an adult woman who is not killed.
  • In Ford v. Wainright (1986), the court ruled that the execution of the insane is unconstitutional.
  • In Ring v. Arizona (2002), the court ruled that it is unconstitutional for a judge sitting without a jury to find an aggravating factor to impose the death penalty.
  • In Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the court ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for mentally retarded defendants.
  • In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the court ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for defendants who were juveniles when they committed the crime.  
  • In Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), the court expanded Roberts v. Louisiana in saying that the death penalty is unconstitutional for child rape in which the victim is not killed. In other words, this made the death penalty unconstitutional for all crimes except capital murder.

If he is found to be sane, Cole is scheduled for execution on October 7. However, if his insanity is proven, his execution will be postponed indefinitely.

 



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