The Senate, rejecting an invitation by the Supreme Court a year ago, voted today to forbid the use of the death penalty against mentally retarded individuals convicted of capital crimes.
"Just because the Supreme Court says we can do it doesn't mean we should," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) told colleagues debating an omnibus crime bill. The court ruled last year that putting mentally retarded persons to death in capital cases is permissible.
The Senate defeated, 59 to 38, an amendment that would have limited the death penalty protection for the mentally retarded to those who do not know the difference between right and wrong.
Critics of the Senate bill said almost every defendant facing a death sentence would claim to be mentally retarded under the legislation. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) called it a "soft . . . liberal approach."
Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) told the Senate that as a prosecutor he once became so frustrated with a "heavy-lidded, slack-jawed" murder suspect who claimed to have mental problems that he declared: "You sick slob!"
He said the suspect was later released and "sliced his wife up into 83 sections. . . . These are people who are human only in the sense of anatomical essence and they are bums."