Legislation Planned on Determining Inmates' Competency for Execution

Legislation Planned on Determining Inmates' Competency for Execution

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- As Utah's courts attempt to determine whether Robert Arguelles is sufficiently mentally competent to be put to death, officials are considering legislation to clarify the evaluation process for future cases.

Arguelles, 41, was set to face a firing squad June 27 for kidnapping, sexually abusing and murdering three teenage girls and a woman while on parole in 1992. But an attorney acting on his behalf filed a motion questioning his competency, and the Department of Corrections also said there was reason to believe an evaluation was necessary.

Confusion among state agencies over how Arguelles' evaluation was to be conducted -- including where it would take place and which agency would fund it -- has delayed the process, officials have said. Eventually, it was agreed the evaluation would take place in the Utah State Prison, and the costs would be split between Corrections and the Division of Mental Health.

It's unclear, however, whether that arrangement would stand for future evaluations of death-row inmates.

"I expect there's still going to be a fair amount of changes we want to make," said C.C. Horton, chief of the criminal division of the Utah Attorney General's Office.

Horton said the legislation is "still in the fairly early stages."

A committee of prosecutors is looking at other states' laws and studying the issue in preparation for proposing legislation, he said.

"We just wanted to have a clearer statute about what it means to be competent enough to be executed," he said. "If somebody is so mentally impaired that they don't understand they are about to be executed, and they don't understand why, they should be treated."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that executing insane prisoners violates the Eighth Amendment clause against cruel and unusual punishment. The justices did not define insanity, except to say a person must be aware of the punishment and why it is being carried out.

Horton said the ruling "didn't establish a definitive standard that everybody had to follow. There are some differences in wording in (states') statutes. We didn't have any language at all."

The process for determining competency to stand trial is outlined in Utah law, but there is a difference between competency to stand trial and competency to be executed, Horton said. "You want to have (a law) that's tailored to the issue at hand."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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