The New York Times reports that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed the execution of Robert Campbell, which was scheduled for this evening. As I wrote extensively over the weekend, Campbell’s case represents two distinct quandaries. First, the execution would be the first to occur following the horrendous butchery that occurred a couple of weeks ago in Oklahoma. Second, Campbell’s IQ is 69, below the line commonly designated for mental retardation. This is significant because the US Supreme Court ruled in 2002 (Atkins v. Virginia) that those will severe intellectual deficiencies may not legally be put to death.
The Federal Appeals Court declined to issue any sort of stay as a result of what I have called the “secret execution drugs.” This issue hails from the fact that the State of Texas recently started obtaining its death drug, pentobarbital, from secret compounding pharmacies, details of which have not even been disclosed to the attorneys of the condemned. Texas has, in all fairness, undergone two of these executions without a hitch. That being said, the issue over the condemned man’s mental faculties struck a chord with the Court.
There is a distinction with a difference I would like to address on this point. The question of whether or not one classifies as mentally retarded under Atkins is a different question than whether or not one classifies as insane under Ford v. Wainwright. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that insane people, no matter their competency at the time of the crime, may not be executed. Insanity quite literally means the inability to discern between right and wrong.
Mental retardation (Editor’s note: The aforementioned term has fallen out of common or official medical use as being politically incorrect. However, the Atkins decision uses the phrase as an officially defined legal term, and subsequent decisions have as well), on the other hand, a clinical diagnosis that simply means having an IQ below a certain level, among other factors. One need not be unable to distinguish right from wrong to qualify. Additionally, such a qualification does not preclude one from punishment, merely from the ultimate punishment: death. In this way, it is much like youth or other mitigating factors.
Back to Campbell, the Houston Chronicle expands upon this point by looking to what will happen next on the issue. Attorneys will be given more time file new petitions specifically regarding the Atkins claim.