Elizabeth Nevins-Saunders


Incomprehensible Crimes: Defendants with Mental Retardation Charged with Statutory Rape

Elizabeth Nevins-Saunders

Criminal law generally assumes that all defendants are alike. Social science research, however, has demonstrated that most defendants with mental retardation are unlike their peers of average intelligence in their cognitive and behavioral capacities—a difference with profound effects on their blameworthiness. The law acknowledges these differences in a few limited areas, most notably in the Supreme Court’s recent decision excluding defendants with mental retardation from death penalty eligibility. But while that decision arguably has begun to percolate into the rest of criminal law, consideration of the unique circumstances facing defendants with mental retardation has not yet reached the law of statutory rape.

When framed as a strict liability offense, statutory rape precludes the fact-finder from considering the defendant’s state of mind altogether. This exclusion of mens rea is an anomaly in criminal law, where a finding of guilt typically requires proof not only of an “evil act,” but also of an “evil mind.” Commentators have criticized strict liability but have ignored its increased injustice when applied to defendants with mental retardation.

A close analysis of statutory rape law reveals several assumptions which are thought to justify departing from a mens rea requirement for such a significant offense: Would-be defendants are presumed to have notice that sex with underage partners is unlawful; to be in the best position to prevent any harm from occurring; and to be deviant, immoral aggressors. When examined in light of research about mental retardation, however, these assumptions collapse. Further, punishing persons with mental retardation without regard to their awareness of the law, social cues, and the nature of their conduct may also run afoul of constitutional due process and proportionate sentencing principles.

This Article therefore argues that legislators, prosecutors, and judges should modify the ways that defendants with mental retardation may be prosecuted for statutory rape. In particular, the government should have to prove that a defendant with mental retardation had the appropriate mens rea. This Article also recommends formalizing the existing ways of addressing differences in culpability of defendants with mental retardation through charging and sentencing.