In fact, in Atkins v. Virginia the decision that banned the death penalty for the intellectually disabled, the only reference to dignity is the reference to a passage in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s 1958 opinion in Trop v. Dulles, “The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.”
In “Dignity Rights: Courts, Constitutions, and the Worth of the Human Person,” Erin Daly, a professor at Widener University Law School, wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court’s first mention of dignity as an individual right is a fleeting reference in Skinner v. Oklahoma in 1942. In a 1945 dissent, Justice Frank Murphy wrote, “The right was his … because he was a human being. As such he was entitled to all the respect and fair treatment that befits the dignity of man.”
In Miranda v. Arizona the Supreme Court wrote of oppressive interrogations as “destructive of human dignity.” In Roper v. Simmons, the court outlawed the execution of juveniles. The Court wrote, “The basic concept of the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.”
The reason the Supreme Court was forced to entertain another case dealing with intellectual disability resulted from the Court’s failure to outline a method for determining intellectual disability in the Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins. In Atkins the court left it to the states to define the parameters of who qualifies as mentally disabled for purpose of capital punishment.
Ultimately the question is whether a defendant’s mental deficiency is so significant that he is unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct. If so, his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment and violate his inherent dignity as a human being.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.