McCarver v. North Carolina

533 U.S. 975
Brief Filed: 6/01
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
Year of Decision: 2001

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 72KB)

See the table of authorities (PDF, 125KB)


Whether the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits the execution of individuals with mental retardation

Index Topics

Competency (to be executed); Death Penalty; Mentally Ill and Mentally Retarded (Rights of)


The Court first addressed this in the case of Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989) when it ruled 5-4 that the practice did not necessarily violate the Constitution. [APA participated as an amicus in that case.] The Supreme Court's 1989 ruling that executing the mentally retarded did not violate the Eighth Amendment was based mainly on the fact that only two states (GA and MD) at the time banned executions of mentally retarded criminals. The court said this was not sufficient evidence of a "national consensus" that the practice violated "standards of decency." Since that time, more states have passed statutes on the subject in addition to the federal government. The Supreme Court granted the petition for writ of certiorari in McCarver limited to one question presented by the petition, as follows: "Whether significant objective evidence demonstrates that national standards have evolved such that executing a mentally retarded man would violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment." McCarver, whose execution was halted just hours before he was to be put to death, was convicted in 1987 of robbery and murder. During McCarver's trial, two forensic psychiatrists and three psychologists concluded that McCarver has an IQ in the 70-80 range. McCarver's appeal cited "society's newly evolved consensus against executing the mentally retarded" as the basis for prohibiting such executions.

APA's Position

APA joined with the American Association of Mental Retardation and other amici in support of McCarver. The brief argued that (1) there is a clear and unmistakable national consensus against the imposition of the death penalty on persons with mental retardation, and (2) the American people oppose the execution of individuals with mental retardation because the practice offends our shared moral values. The brief also addressed the established procedures for evaluating the presence of mental retardation, and the attributes of mental retardation that bare on criminal sentencing. The brief further argued that it is widely recognized that the culpability of defendants with mental retardation is reduced by the effects of their intellectual disability, that the disability of mental retardation is not a condition that is the defendant's fault or something for which he is responsible, and that a defendant's mental retardation greatly increases the likelihood of the conviction and execution of a factually innocent individual, and that this risk is intolerable.


After numerous amicus briefs were filed, North Carolina adopted a state statute that made executing the mentally retarded illegal. As a result, in September 2001, the Supreme Court dismissed the case as moot but granted cert in a similar case, Atkins v. Virginia. (APA joined with other amici to refile the McCarver amicus brief in Atkins.)