Court May Clarify Rule on Impairment, Death Penalty

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a Florida death penalty case could help answer a Texas question about how to establish whether an inmate is too severely impaired to be subject to the death penalty.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a Florida death penalty case, in which an inmate argued that his intellectual disability made him exempt from execution, could help answer a decade-old question in Texas and other states about how to establish whether an inmate is too severely impaired to be subject to the death penalty.

“This is the courts trying to play catch-up with where the mental health community is going,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental affairs at the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

The Supreme Court last month agreed to hear the case of Freddie L. Hall, who was sentenced to death for the 1978 rape and murder of a pregnant woman and the fatal shooting of a police officer. Oral arguments are expected in the spring.

Hall’s lawyers assert that his low IQ, his deficits in adaptive behavior and a history of a lack of intellectual ability render him ineligible for execution. The high court is expected to decide whether Florida’s criteria for evaluating intellectual disability in death penalty cases — similar to those Texas uses — are adequate.

In Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the Supreme Court ruled that states could not execute the intellectually disabled. The court found that a lack of brain functioning made them less culpable and more susceptible to flaws in the justice system that could lead to wrongful convictions. But the justices left it up to states to determine how intellectual disability would be assessed. Both Texas and Florida rely on a three-pronged evaluation that requires the defendant to have a low IQ and reduced adaptive function and to have exhibited both before the age of 18.

Florida’s law differs from the Texas standard because it does not allow for the evaluation of the second two criteria if the defendant’s IQ is not 70 or lower. The question in the case of Hall — his IQ test scores ranged from 80 to 71, and the state court ruled that Atkins did not bar his execution — is whether that IQ standard meets the intent of the court’s 2002 ruling.

Both prosecutors and defense lawyers in Texas are looking to the high court for clarity when it comes to evaluating intellectual disability. Texas lawmakers have been unable to pass a law creating a standard, so the existing criteria come from a 2004 decision from the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals in the case of Jose Garcia Briseño. The appeals court invoked, in part, an evaluation of Lennie from John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men, writing that "most Texas citizens would agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt from execution. But does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?"

Defense lawyers have called the standards unscientific, and they drew national attention ahead of the 2012 execution of Marvin Wilson, whose lawyers argued that he was intellectually disabled.

Steinbeck’s son Thomas described the court’s reliance on the fictional character as “insulting, outrageous, ridiculous and profoundly tragic.”

Maurie Levin, a lawyer who represents several Texas death row inmates, said the Supreme Court’s decision could result in a more scientifically sound set of standards.

“The acknowledgment or possibility that they will articulate a need for a respect for scientific principles has the potential for bringing states like Texas back in line,” Levin said.

For prosecutors, Edmonds said, guidance from the high court would help them confront cases involving mental health in which the science used to assess conditions is constantly changing.

“It’s like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall,” Edmonds said. “You can never get a handle on it.”

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