COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A bill that would ban executing the mentally retarded won key approval in the House on Tuesday.
Under the bill, defendants determined to be mentally retarded before trial would face a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole rather than death, said Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville.
The bill provides no lesser sentences as alternatives, taking away some of a trial judge's authority in sentencing mentally retarded defendants, said Rep. Joe Neal, D-Hopkins.
"The judge shouldn't be told he has only one choice that he can make," Neal said. "I have a problem with the Legislature dictating to the court and limiting its options. I think that's a mistake."
Other legislators felt that life in prison was an appropriate sentence for someone convicted of murder even if the defendant were determined to be mentally retarded, Lucas said.
"We're not talking about someone who's insane, who doesn't know right from wrong," he said. "To provide a lesser sentence, we didn't think was appropriate for someone who does know right from wrong."
The bill requires a life sentence for defendants who are determined to be mentally retarded during a pretrial hearing and subsequently convicted of murder.
At the pretrial hearing, the judge would hear expert testimony and consider evidence of mental retardation. At least one of the experts must be a trained clinician with expertise in mental retardation.
If a defendant is ruled not mentally retarded, the case would continue and the jury would not be informed of the earlier proceedings.
During sentencing, however, the defense could present evidence of mental retardation to the jury, which could impose a 30-year sentence if it cannot rule out mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt.
The bill requires a third approval before moving to the Senate for debate.