How Texas Can Execute a Man with an IQ of 61

Marvin Wilson

Marvin Wilson

According to his most recent test, Marvin Wilson has an IQ of 61 (most states bar executions for those with IQs at 70 or below). That puts him below the first percentile of human intelligence, and he’s in an even lower percentile for adaptive functioning.  Despite the US Supreme Court’s ten-year old ban on executing the “mentally retarded” (Atkins v. Virginia), Marvin Wilson faces execution in Texas on August 7.

In Georgia, the case of Warren Hill recently exposed that state’s uniquely strict requirement that “mental retardation” be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” before an execution can be declared unconstitutional.

Texas uses a more reasonable “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof.  But the Lone Star State has found another way to keep killing the intellectually disabled. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Warren Hill Gets A Stay Of Execution

warren hill

Warren Hill

Georgia will not be able to execute Warren Hill on Monday.  He has been granted a temporary stay so the state of Georgia can sort out whether the sudden switch to a one-drug lethal injection protocol last week violated state laws guaranteeing public input on important administrative procedures (like killing people).

This is good news, in that Hill will not immediately be put to death, but there is no question that Georgia fully intends to execute a man with an IQ of 70 whom state judges have declared to be “mentally retarded” by all legal standards except the “beyond a reasonable doubt” bar used only by Georgia.

That the stay was granted on the lethal injection question allows the state of Georgia to evade further scrutiny of the way it handles capital punishment for the mentally disabled.  For now, the Supreme Court, which banned executions of those with intellectual disabilities ten years ago, will not be reviewing Warren Hill’s case or the unique Georgia law upon which the state bases its right to kill him.

No Mercy In Georgia

warren hill

Clemency was denied for Warren Hill despite his diagnosis of mental retardation.

The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles has disgraced itself, and the state it represents … again. The Georgia Board exists, like all executive clemency institutions, to inject a bit of mercy and humanity into the cold, clinical processes of our justice system.

But the Board could find no mercy for Warren Hill.

On Monday, the Georgia Board rejected Mr. Hill’s clemency petition, despite pleas from the victim’s family and several jurors that there should be no execution.  And without regard for the intellectual disabilities that should have rendered him unfit for execution 10 years ago.

The Supreme Court ruled the execution of persons with “mental retardation” unconstitutional in 2002.  Shortly thereafter, a Georgia judge found Mr. Hill to be “mentally retarded” by a “preponderance of the evidence”.  But Georgia, alone among the 33 death penalty states, requires proof of “mental retardation” to be “beyond a reasonable doubt”, the most difficult legal standard to reach. So the courts couldn’t stop an execution that would not go forward in any other state and, more likely than not, would be unconstitutional.


Intellectual Disability, Mercy And Georgia’s Death Penalty

warren hill

Warren Hill is scheduled for execution July 18

Georgia was the first state in the U.S. to ban the execution of persons with intellectual disabilities (known then as the “mentally retarded”), passing a law in 1988. That was 14 years before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the practice nationwide in 2002.  But on July 18, Georgia is scheduled to execute Warren Hill despite the fact that a state judge declared him to be “mentally retarded” by a “preponderance of the evidence”.

As this New York Times editorial points out, Hill still faces execution because Georgia is the only state that requires a prisoner to establish his intellectual disabilities “beyond a reasonable doubt” – an extraordinarily high standard.  Other states have more realistic requirements like the aforementioned “preponderance of the evidence” standard.

The courts have been unable to address this situation in which Georgia seems to be lurching inexorably towards an unconstitutional execution.  But the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles can still step in, uphold justice, and exercise mercy where the judiciary has fallen short.


10 Years Later: Still Executing The Intellectually Disabled?

Teresa Lewis

Teresa Lewis was executed in 2010 despite being assessed with “borderline mental retardation.”

While we wait with bated breath for important human rights related end-of-term Supreme Court decisions – healthcareimmigration and juvenile life without parole among them – we look back to a landmark death penalty case decided ten years ago today, Atkins v. Virginia.

In Atkins, the Court held that executing individuals with intellectual disabilities (known then as “mental retardation”) was “cruel and unusual punishment” and prohibited by our Constitution’s Eight Amendment.

Unfortunately it was left to the states to define “mental retardation” and decide how to comply with the ruling, leading to multiple definitions and procedures in different states. To define intellectual disabilities, an IQ score of 70 has been widely used as a dividing line, but there can be multiple IQ tests with different scores, and other factors that suggest greater, or lesser, intellectual disability, so even this solid seeming number has not clarified things much.

The result has been a chaotic mish-mash in which dozens of death sentences have been reduced because of successful Atkins claims, yet several people have been executed despite claims that seem to be equally compelling:

Will Texas Execute a Man with Mental Retardation?

untitledBobby Woods has an IQ of around 70 and is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas on December 3.  The crime for which he was sentenced to die was heinous (he was convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl), but executing persons with mental retardation has been forbidden by the US Supreme Court since 2002.  Those with diminished mental capacity are deemed less culpable for the crimes they commit, therefore execution, for them, is a “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Since 2002 the problem, in Texas as elsewhere, has been defining what mental retardation is – most states have settled on an IQ below 70 as the main quantifiable criterion, though IQ testing is not the most exact of sciences.   The problem, for prisoners like Woods, is that proving a sufficiently diminished mental capacity, as with most other facets of our capital punishment system, requires a good lawyer.

A good lawyer Bobby Woods did not have.  As the Texas Observer points out, in 10 years of representation both at trial and on appeals, Woods’ lawyer visited him exactly one time.  Unable to raise a mental retardation claim with the courts at this late stage, Woods’ new attorney, Maurie Levin, must rely on the good graces of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and Governor Rick Perry, to commute his sentence, or at least to grant a 60 day reprieve to allow Levin more time “to adequately present a full picture of his limitations.”

The Observer piece, with links to videos and excerpts from letters, does a pretty good job of presenting such a picture.

Inmate ordered off death row in North Carolina

Clinton Smith, a man sentenced to die in 1998 for the death of his daughter, was ordered off death row last week by state Supreme Court judge John Jolly, Jr.  Mr. Smith cannot read or write and has an IQ of less than 70.  He was found to be mentally retarded and, therefore, ineligible for the death penalty, according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia.   His sentence was changed to life in prison. 

The question remains, however, as to why Mr. Smith’s death sentence was not lessened six years ago after the Court ruled that executing the mentally retarded was cruel and unusual.  And how many other mentally retarded inmates await execution despite a Supreme Court ruling intended to protect them?  Unfortunately, justice for these inmates may be tied up in subjective definitions of “mental retardation”.  Each state has its own definition, many relying on vague qualifiers such as “subaverage general intellectual functioning” and “deficits in adaptive behavior”.  Many also rely on IQ scores, with one point meaning the difference between life and death.