Intellectual Disability

Supreme Court to Review Florida's Death Penalty Scheme

On March 9, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Hurst v. Florida, a challenge to the state's unusual sentencing procedure. In a prior ruling, Ring v. Arizona (2002), the Court held that the question of whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty is entitled to a jury deteremination. Unlike almost every other state where unanimous juries are required for death eligibility and a death sentence, Florida only requires the jury to make a sentencing recommendation to the judge, who then makes the final decision on the existence of aggravating factors and the actual sentence. Timothy Hurst was sentenced to death by a judge, following a 7-5 recommendation for death by the jury. The jury's recommendation did not make clear which aggravating factors made him eligible for the death penalty or whether they found any aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt. The Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida could affect pending cases and other inmates on the state's death row.

UPCOMING EXECUTIONS: Elderly Man With Low IQ and Brain Damage Facing Imminent Execution

UPDATE: An image of Cecil Clayton's brain obtained via MRI can be viewed here. The image shows the front left part of his brain is physically missing. Cecil Clayton is 74, suffers from dementia, has an IQ of 71, is missing a significant part of his brain due to an accident, and is scheduled for execution on March 17 in Missouri. His attorneys insist he should be spared because he does not understand the punishment to be carried out. Clayton sustained a brain injury in a sawmill accident in 1972, requiring removal of about 20% of his frontal lobe, which is involved in impulse control, problem solving, and social behavior. After the accident, Clayton began experiencing violent impulses, schizophrenia, and extreme paranoia, which became so severe that he checked himself into a mental hospital out of fear he could not control his temper. In 1983, Dr. Douglas Stevens, a psychiatrist, examined Clayton and concluded, “There is presently no way that this man could be expected to function in the world of work. Were he pushed to do so he would become a danger both to himself and to others. He has had both suicidal and homicidal impulses, so far controlled, though under pressure they would be expected to exacerbate.” In the past decade, six psychiatric evaluations have found that Clayton should be exempt from execution because he does not understand that he will be executed, or the reasons for his execution. However, since his execution date has been set, he has not had a competency hearing before a judge that could spare him from execution.

January's Executions Underscore Core Death Penalty Problems

Even as executions have declined in the U.S., those being carried out often illustrate serious problems that have plagued the death penalty for many years. Of the six executions January, two (in Florida and Oklahoma) involved a lethal injection protocol that is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia executed Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Warren Hill, an inmate who was found intellectually disabled by state doctors, but who failed to meet the state's highly unusual standard of proving his disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Texas executed Robert Ladd, an inmate with an IQ of 67. Texas courts have devised their own largely unscientific criteria for determining intellectual disabilty. That leaves Arnold Prieto, also executed in Texas. He was offered a plea bargain and probably would have been spared if he had testified against his co-defendants. Of those involved in the brutal crime, only Prieto received the death penalty.

LAW REVIEWS: Disparities in Determinations of Intellectual Disability

A recent law review article reported wide variations among states in exempting defendants with intellectual disability from the death penalty. Professor John Blume (l.) of Cornell Law School, along with three co-authors, analyzed claims filed under the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) against executing defendants with intellectual disability (formerly, "mental retardation"). Overall, from 2002 through 2013, only about 7.7% (371) of death row inmates or capital defendants have raised claims of intellectual disability. The total "success" rate for such claims was 55%. In North Carolina, the success rate was 82%, and in Mississippi 57%. However, in Georgia (where Warren Hill was recently executed), the success rate for those claiming this disability was only 11%, and in Florida, the success rate was zero. The authors found that states that significantly deviated from accepted clinical methods for determining intellectual disability, such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, had the lowest success rates. To preserve equal protection under the law, the authors recommended the Supreme Court strike down aberrant practices in isolated states, just as it struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff.

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Texas Defendant with Low IQ Would Be Spared in Other States

UPDATE: (1/27). Ladd was denied a stay by the TX Ct. of Crim. Appeals. Robert Ladd is scheduled to be executed in Texas on January 29, despite having an IQ of 67, an indication of intellectial disability rendering him ineligible for execution. Howver, Texas courts rejected Ladd's previous appeal because the state has a unique way of evaluating intellectual disability. Courts in Texas often consider what is called the "Briseño factors," a set of criteria created by a judge that differs from the usual psychological determination of intellectual disabilty. In particular, Texas may allow an execution if the defendant exhibited forethought or advance planning in commiting the crime. Generally, intellecutal disability is determined independent of the facts surrounding the crime. Texas is the only state that considers such factors, despite the lack of scientific basis, in determining whether a defendant should be spared. Ladd's attorneys are challenging the use of these factors, saying they violate the Supreme Court's recent decision in Hall v. Florida, which held that Florida's unusual standards for establishing intellectual disability were outside the country's standards of decency.

Georgia Sets Execution Date for Inmate with Intellectual Disabilities

Georgia has set an execution date of January 27 for Warren Hill, an inmate diagnosed with intellectual disabilities (formerly referred to as "mental retardation"). If Hill was convicted in any other state in the country, he almost certainly would be ineligible for the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of people with intellectual disabilities in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), but allowed states to set procedures for determining this disability. Georgia set the strictest standard, requiring proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." A Georgia judge found Hill intellectually disabled under a "preponderance of the evidence" standard, which is the test used in most states. Hill's attorneys have asked for a stay of execution, saying that Georgia's unusual standard violates the Supreme Court's 2014 ruling in Hall v. Florida, which struck down Florida's unusual IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability. Brian Kammer, an attorney for Hill, said, "Twice the lower court found Warren Hill to have intellectual disability by the preponderance of the evidence, a widely-used and appropriate standard. All of the states’ experts have agreed, and in fact no expert who has ever examined Mr. Hill disputes that he has intellectual disability." UPDATE: The Georgia Supreme Court rejected Hill's most recent appeal on Jan. 20. UPDATE: (1/28/15) Warren Hill was executed on January 27, 2015.

North Carolina Innocence Commission Frees Another Inmate, 38 Years Late

The same Commission that freed former death row inmates Henry McCollum and Leon Brown in September exonerated another man who had been convicted of murder, Willie Womble (l.). The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission freed Womble on October 17, dismissing his 1976 first-degree murder conviction and life sentence. Womble had been convicted of acting as a lookout while another man, Joseph Perry, robbed a convenience store and killed the cashier. Both Perry and Womble received life sentences. Though Womble had always said he was innocent, he never filed a motion to challenge his conviction, perhaps because of his diminished mental capacity (a disability also present in McCollum and Brown). In 2013, Perry wrote a letter to the Innocence Commission stating that Womble was innocent. When Perry learned that his actual accomplice had died, he decided he could reveal Womble's innocence without putting the other man in prison. The Commission investigated Womble's case and found that his confession had been possibly coerced and written by a detective working on the case. Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, said, “In 2008, the legislature passed a law requiring the recording of interrogations. This is another case showing how important that is.” Granville County District Attorney Sam Currin supported Womble's exoneration, saying, “I apologized to Mr. Womble and to the family of Mr. Roy Bullock, who was the victim. I just felt it was right. The system and the state of North Carolina failed them for 39 years.” Although not sentenced to death, Womble's case shows the risks of capital punishment and the difficulty in discovering innocence.

International Community to Focus on Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

On October 10 many international organizations and countries are focusing on the use of the death penalty around the world. The emphasis this year is on mental health issues related to capital punishment, with groups advocating for a ban on the execution of individuals with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities. People with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable to manipulation during interrogation and have difficulty assisting in their own defense. Mental health problems can be exacerbated by the extreme isolation on death row. Recently, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a publication, "Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends, and Perspectives," which also discussed international issues related to the death penalty. In a preface to the publication, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, "The death penalty has no place in the 21st century. Leaders across the globe must boldly step forward in favour of abolition. I recommend this book in particular to those States that have yet to abolish the death penalty. Together, let us end this cruel and inhumane practice."

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