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  • Rob Will

Cognitive Capability and The Death Penalty

Many times pro-death penalty advocates will promote the idea that since a person made the choice to murder someone then they should pay for that “choice” with their Life. I’ve heard it said that even though an adult who commits murder may qualify as mentally retarded or be severely mentally ill, they still should be executed because they were “smart enough” to engage in the act of murder.

The absurdity of these arguments really do not need to be addressed in depth, at least not at this time. I was thinking about these pro-death penalty arguments after I had a particular conversation with a guy here however, and I wanted to briefly discuss some thoughts on the conversation.The guy is obviously mentally retarded. Luckily, he has an excellent appeals attorney — a rarity indeed! — so I’m fairly sure he’ll eventually get a Life sentence. Before I describe this conversation I should say a few words about the development of thinking and reasoning as an individual grows up.

Many theorists have put forth varying and even contradictory ideas concerning cognitive development during childhood. Most would readily agree, however, that at certain points — not necessarily specific ages — during childhood, kids develop the ability to think in more complex ways.

Jean Piaget theorized that there are four distinct stages of intellectual development during childhood. The formal operations stage is the one currently most relevant to the discussion at hand, so it’s the only one I’ll briefly discuss. Piaget used the term formal operations to describe the cognitive processes used in dealing with abstract situations and hypothetical questions. To engage in this type of thought process one has to use methodical planning and logical deductive reasoning.

Piaget said that children reach the formal operations stage — which is his fourth and final stage of cognitive development — around age 11. Modern psychology has shown us, however, that formal operations thinking can be reached sooner or in some cases not at all, as in the case of a mentally retarded adult …

Now, to the conversation: I was at rec. talking to the guy who I’ll call “Matt.” We were on the “outside” rec. yard and it was midday, the temperature around one hundred degrees and the sun was blazing fiercely. The officers were busy dealing with other things so we ended up staying on the yard for about 3 hours.

After about 2 hours I moved close to the wall so I would be in the shade. I mentioned to Matt that he should probably get out of the sun also so he didn’t get sunburned. He told me that he wouldn’t get too red because the Texan sun isn’t as hot as the Minnesota sun.

I asked Matt why he believes that. He told me a story about how him and his family went on vacation to Minnesota when he was younger and stayed out at a lake all day which led to him getting extremely sunburned. Being the good Southern man that I am I don’t know much about the lands above the Mason-Dixon Line, but Minnesota borders Canada so I assume it doesn’t get as hot as Texas there. I’m not much for the hard sciences but just because of general atmospheric conditions within the two states I would think that during the summer the sun does actually shine brighter and hotter in Texas.

Nevertheless, all of this I mentioned to Matt and he agreed that yes it does get hotter in Texas than in Minnesota but the sun shines hotter and brighter in Minnesota. Why? Again, because he got sunburned really badly in Minnesota — a sunburn worse than any he had ever experienced in Texas.

To make a long story short Matt and I talked about this for about 30 minutes. I gave him different scenarios such as: If you stayed in the sun for 5 hours in Texas, in July when it’s 100 degrees and there’s no clouds in the sky, do you think you’d get sunburned badly? Yes.

O-K, now if you stayed in the sun for 5 hours in Minnesota, in July when it’s 100 degrees and there’s no clouds in the sky, do you think you’d get sunburned badly? Yes, really badly! Worse than the sunburn you’d get in Texas? Yes, way worse! Why? Because the sun is way hotter in Minnesota.

I asked Matt if it was possible that perhaps he just stayed out in the sun for an extremely long time, that day in Minnesota — much longer than he’d ever stayed in the sun in Texas — and that’s why he got sunburned worse than at any other time in his life. He didn’t understand my question and no matter how many different ways I tried to explain the idea he never got it.

So, then I asked Matt various fairly basic hypothetical questions regarding his vacation and various other things. He couldn’t grasp any questions that required abstract thought and logical strategic reasoning. Matt, a man in his 30s has not reached the stage of formal operations that children usually reach around 11 years old.

He has the mind of a young child. He thinks like a kid under the age of 11. Matt comprehends the world and all questions in Life from the perspective of a child of about 8 or 9 years of age.

How can anyone say that it should be morally permissible to execute someone like Matt? He has the mind of a child! Pro-death penalty arguments stating that people who make the choice to murder should pay for their choice with their lives fail to differentiate between choices made by a person with a psychologically healthy adult mind and an adult whose cognitive capabilities mirror that of a young child.

If a 9-year-old child got into a schoolhouse fight over say a cell-phone and pushed a kid down the stairs and he died, then the child took the cell-phone and ran, should the child be executed? I’m sure even the vast majority of pro-death penalty advocates would say no because of the age of the killer. But these same people will shout to the high heavens calling for their vindictive depraved form of justice to be dished out to execute someone like Matt.

They’ll say something like “He’s an adult so he should pay for his crime.” What about the fact that he is mentally retarded? “Well, he was smart enough to commit the murder so he should be executed.” Terrible.

I suppose I’ll go ahead and stop this incessant rambling. I really just wanted to write about this because it upsets me that Matt is here on Death Row when he is obviously mentally retarded and has the reasoning capacity of an 8 or 9-year-old child. It’s sad and upsetting. Things like this shouldn’t happen in our society. Our judicial system should be structured in a manner that would absolutely prevent such a thing from happening …


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