Should the Mentally Disabled Be Expected to Know Right From Wrong?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The case of Jerry Hartfield is a complicated one.  Matt Ford has full details here, but the basics: Hartfield, who has an IQ of 51, was found guilty last week of a grisly murder he was imprisoned for 35 years ago despite an overturned conviction. Atlantic reader Genuine Realist, a retired public defender, explains the case through a critical lens:

It had a strange procedural history. In essence, the defendant, who was represented, was litigating his death sentence, not the conviction—of which the evidence was overwhelming. The appellate reversal was about as slender as it could be: a question of whether a single juror had been improperly removed for cause relative to the death penalty—not the type that changes the quantum of evidence against the defendant.

After the reversal, he received the commutation. He could have—had he chosen to—pressed for a retrial HIMSELF. Sensible counsel chose not to do so, since that would place the commutation at issue—i.e., at retrial he would have once again risked getting the death penalty. The practical fact is that he had nothing to gain, and quite a bit to lose, with a retrial. So he laid low.

The state’s attorney’s simply blew it; he or she should have re-docketed the matter to close it out. But the case had reached an angle of repose that was likely correct, and it slipped beneath the radar. Thirty years later, Andrew Cohen and others resurrected it as some monstrous injustice—never mind the strength of the evidence or the complicity of defense tactics. The bottom line is that the case ain't the Scottsboro boys; it’s actually a legal curiosity.

I also have to comment on this constant theme of retardation. One of my children is neurologically disabled.

I serve on the board of one of the better local agencies that takes care of these people. I’ve been a member of the community for thirty years. The notion that a retarded person would not or could not comprehend the gravity of raping and murdering a young woman is actually a rather repulsive, condescending prejudice.

My child and most of her friends function quite effectively in the community, thanks, and they ALL are quite capable of understanding the ordinary moral rules by which we all live—the rubrics against theft, lying, assault, and so on. In a case like this, the victim almost certainly fought for her life, or begged for mercy or yelled for help. You think a mentally handicapped person is so dumb that doesn't register?

Those of you who blandly suggest a mental handicap as some sort of mitigating circumstance in an aggravated rape/murder are actually reconfirming one of the oldest bigotries around. Look elsewhere for your mitigating factors.

Scott K counters:

You misunderstand. The issue is that a retarded person could not navigate the bureaucracy of the justice system.

“Neither can persons of ‘normal' functioning,” retorts Genuine Realist. “That's why the right to counsel and the legal profession exist.” And he thinks Hartfield was “exceptionally well counseled”:

That’s why he never pressed for a new trial. BOTH sides receive the remittitur. His lawyers could have docketed it as easily as the prosecution. But they had absolutely nothing to gain. His lawyers and some good luck likely saved his life. Not a bad outcome.

You have quite a warped sense of national scandal. You forget all about a murdered and raped girl. The defendant was twice convicted on strong evidence. The scandal is that any one gives a damn about him.

The last word, for now, goes to Turtles Run:

The issue here the trampling of constitutional rights. They should apply to all of us not matter our crime. Hartfield should spend his life behind bars but only after the proper legal proceedings and sentencing. Him being a horrible person does nothing to remove his rights.

Your thoughts? Email