The Cruelty of Killing the Intellectually Disabled

Download PDF

The state of Virginia plans to put Teresa Lewis to death on September 23, 2010.

How does killing the intellectually disabled give us justice?

The state of Virginia plans to put Teresa Lewis to death on September 23 for orchestrating the 2002 murders of her husband and stepson for insurance money.  Strangely, though, this so-called “mastermind” has an IQ of 72 and has been diagnosed with “borderline mental retardation”.  Further, one of the two shooters in the case admitted in 2004 that he was the true mastermind and that he determined shortly after meeting Lewis that she was “not too bright and could be easily manipulated.” And it seems that that is just what he did.  His IQ, incidentally was scored at 113.  The two shooters were sentenced to life.  Lewis, a non-shooter, was cooperative, pled guilty and now faces death.

This is the second execution date set for this month of a person whose mental capacity borders on intellectual disability.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to execute such individuals, except that these two individuals were not recognized in their legal proceedings as meeting the definition of “mentally retarded” (the outdated term used in legal-ese), which requires a look at a number of factors.  Accountability and providing justice for the sake of the murder victims is not the question here, but surely these individuals whose culpability is diminished by their mental capacity should not be executed in a humane society.

Holly Wood, an African American man in Alabama may be put to death tonight if Governor Bob Riley does not intervene.  At the crux of his case is the unsurprising issue of ineffective legal counsel.  The lawyer who represented him at the sentencing phase was a total rookie – no experience with death penalty cases, let alone criminal law.  He failed to share with the jury information about Wood’s mental impairments and as a result, this crucial mitigating factor was missing from deliberations that resulted in the decision to send him to the gurney.  While there was no question about his guilt, four federal judges in three courts, whose opinions did not carry the day, concluded that he was denied adequate legal representation.

The failure to investigate Wood’s mental disability was proof said two dissenting U.S. Supreme Court justices of “inattention and neglect.”  And so, another person goes to death row because of a system that is willing to allow poor legal representation for people facing the most severe and irreversible sentence.  Incidentally, his IQ has been assessed (post-conviction) at 64 and 59.  A reporter asked me yesterday how this score would not indicate his “mental retardation”; thus, how could Wood’s execution be constitutional?  I really don’t know.

Help us stop the pending executions of Teresa Lewis and Holly Wood by taking action today.