Intellectual Disability

Georgia Prepares to Execute John Conner Despite Evidence of Intellectual Impairment, Traumatic Upbringing

Georgia is continuing with preparations to execute John Conner (pictured) on July 14 after the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles denied his clemency petition and the Georgia Supreme Court denied him a stay of execution. In the clemency proceedings, Conner's attorneys presented evidence that he is intellectually disabled and that he was raised in poverty and extreme violence in a home filled with chronic drug and alcohol abuse and in which sexual and emotional abuse were the norm. Conner's lawyers wrote that, at a young age, he was "indoctrinated into a life that normalized drugs, alcohol, and violence, so much so that he drunkenly beat a friend to death in reaction to a lewd comment." They also said Conner's teachers had identified him as intellectually disabled. Conner's inexperienced trial attorney failed to present any evidence at trial or in the sentencing hearing and his appellate lawyer was not provided any resources to investigate his case. As a result, his lawyers said, neither the jury nor the state appellate courts heard any mitigating evidence of his intellectual impairments and horrifying upbringing, which they say might have changed the jury's sentencing decision. Though a federal court later ruled that his evidence of intellectual impairment did not reach the level of disability that would render him ineligible for execution, his lawyers argued that the court did not consider the mitigating aspects of his intellectual impairments or whether "Mr. Conner's poverty-, violence-, and trauma-filled family background ... should have justified a sentence less than death." On July 12, the Georgia Supreme Court declined to review Conner's claim that his execution more than 34 years after being sentenced to death constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and voted 5-2 to deny him a stay of execution. [UPDATE: Georgia executed Conner shortly after midnight on July 15. It was the sixth execution conducted by the state in 2016, more than in any previous calendar year since executions were allowed to resume in 1976.]

As Miranda Decision Turns 50, False Confessions Still Affect Death Penalty

On June 13, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miranda v. Arizona, granting suspects critical constitutional protections designed to combat abusive police interrogation practices. In commentary for The Marshall Project, Samuel Gross (pictured) and Maurice Possley of the National Registry of Exonerations discuss the interplay between false confessions, the death penalty, and wrongful convictions and describe how Miranda's famous rights to remain silent and to be represented by a lawyer during an interrogation have failed to prevent numerous false confessions and false charges against others. Nearly a quarter of the 1,810 exonerations recorded in the National Registry of Exonerations involve false or fabricated confessions, including 227 (13%) cases in which suspects falsely confessed and 195 (11%) cases in which they falsely implicated someone else. Despite being given their "Miranda warning," many suspects agree to speak with interrogators without a lawyer present and confess to crimes they did not commit, as a result of the mental stress of interrogation, threats of severe punishment if they do not cooperate, deceptive interrogation practices, or because they do not understand what they are doing. 72% of all exonerees with reported mental illness or intellectual disability had falsely confessed. Among them was Earl Washington, a man with an IQ of about 69, who was convicted of a rape and murder after falsely confessing during two days of interrogations, despite the fact that his confession was full of errors about the facts of the crime. He spent 16 years on death row in Virginia before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Gross and Possley explain that "some innocent suspects ... blame others to deflect responsibility and reduce their punishment." They point to the case of Richard Ochoa, who, to avoid the death penalty, falsely implicated his roommate Richard Danziger as the actual killer in a 1988 murder in Austin, Texas, pled guilty to a murder he did not commit, and testified against Danziger at trial. In 2002, both were exonerated by DNA. The authors praise the Miranda decision as an important step in regulating coercive interrogation practices, but say additional reforms are needed. In particular, they recommend that all interrogations, especially in homicide cases, be recorded, as already required in 23 states. They write, "Recording greatly helps us evaluate any claim that a confession was false, and it has taught us how to improve the conduct of interrogations." 

Supreme Court To Hear Texas Death Penalty Cases Dealing with Racial Bias, Intellectual Disability

On June 6, the U.S. Supreme Court granted writs of certiorari in two Texas death penalty cases, and will review the constitutionality of those death sentences during its next term. The two cases are Buck v. Stephens, in which Duane Buck was sentenced to death after a psychologist testified at his penalty trial that the fact that Buck is African-American increases the likelihood that he presents a future danger to society; and Moore v. Texas, a challenge to Texas' unscientific test for determining whether a defendant is intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution. Texas, through its then-Attorney General John Cornyn, had conceded that seven death row prisoners, including Buck, had been unfairly sentenced to death after juries in their cases had been exposed to expert mental health testimony improperly linking race and future dangerousness. The other defendants whose trials were tainted by such testimony were granted new sentencing hearings, but Buck's case did not reach the courts until Cornyn had become a U.S. Senator, and the new Attorney General (now Governor), Greg Abbott, opposed granting Buck a new sentencing hearing. The Court granted review on one of two issues presented in Bobby James Moore's petition for certiorari, whether a state may reject current medical standards in determining intellectual disability. It initially appeared to have granted review of a second issue as well, whether Moore's "extraordinarily long" confinement on death row violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, in an updated order, the Court clarified that it was limiting its review to only the intellectual dsability question. Moore was sentenced to death more than 35 years ago, and has been diagnosed as intellectually disabled by medical professionals. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his intellectual disability claim in 2015 because he failed to meet Texas' “Briseño factors,” a set of unscientific criteria based on the fictional character of Lennie Smalls from the novel "Of Mice and Men." 

NEW VOICES: Former Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court Questions Constitutionality of Death Penalty

I. Beverly Lake, Jr.—a staunch supporter of North Carolina's death penalty during his years as a State Senator and who, as a former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, repeatedly voted to uphold death sentences—has changed his stance on capital punishment. In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, Lake said he not only supported capital punishment as a State Senator, he "vigorously advocated" for it and "cast my vote at appropriate times to uphold that harsh and most final sentence" as Chief Justice. His views have evolved, he said, primarily because of concerns about wrongful convictions. "My faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes," he wrote. However, his concerns about the death penalty are broader than just the question of innocence. Lake says he also questions whether legal protections for people with diminished culpability as a result of intellectual disability, mental illness, or youth, are adequate. "For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability. Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime," he said. He describes the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana death row inmate who was 18 at the time of the offense and has an IQ of 74, placing him just outside the Supreme Court's bans on the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual diabilities. Lake argues, "Taken together, these factors indicate that he is most likely just as impaired as those individuals that the Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute." He concludes, "Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot."

Supreme Court Asked to Review Texas' Use of Factors Based on a Fictional Character to Reject Death Row Prisoner's Intellectual Disability Claim

Bobby James Moore (pictured) faces execution in Texas after the state's Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his claim of intellectual disability in September 2015, saying he failed to meet Texas' “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them), an unscientific seven-pronged test which a judge based on the character Lennie Smalls from John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." In doing so, the appeals court reversed a lower court's ruling that tracked the scientific diagnostic criteria set forth by medical professionals, which found that Moore had intellectual disability. On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court will conference to decide whether to hear Moore's case. Moore's lawyers argue, supported by briefing from national and international mental health advocates, that he has intellectual disability and that the non-scientific standard employed by Texas in denying his intellectual disability claim violated the Court's 2014 ruling in Hall v. Florida. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the 8th Amendment prohibits the use of the death penalty against persons with mental retardation, now known as intellectual disability. But Atkins left it to the states to adopt procedures for determining whether defendants were intellectually disabled. Hall struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability because it "disregards established medical practice." Texas is the only state that uses the Briseño factors, which include whether the crime required forethought or planning, whether the person is capable of lying effectively, and whether the defendant is more of a leader or a follower. The state court disregarded Moore's clear history of intellectual disability, documented since childhood, and IQ scores ranging from the low 50s to the low 70s, in favor of Texas' idiosyncratic method.

Texas About to Execute Inmate Despite Evidence of Intellectual Disability

UPDATE: Wesbrook was executed on Mar. 9. EARLIER: Coy Wesbrook is scheduled to be executed in Texas on March 9. If the execution proceeds, it will be the eighth in the U.S. this year, half of which have been in Texas. Wesbrook killed five people after a confrontation with his ex-wife. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that defendants with intellectual disability (formerly referred to as "mental retardation") are exempt from the death penalty. Wesbrook was tested for intellectual disability at the request of the prosecution, following a challenge by Wesbrook's attorneys that he should be spared. Psychologist George Denkowski examined Wesbrook and initially submitted a report finding he had an IQ of 66, placing him below the standard level for intellectual disabilty. Several months later, he filed a new report based on "non-intellectual factors" that said Wesbrook's "actual adult general intelligence functioning is estimated to be of about 84 quality." Ohio State University professor Marc Tasse, an expert on developmental disabilities, said Denkowski's methods had "absolutely no scientific basis." Because of his unscientific procedures in Wesbrook's and 15 other cases, Denkowski was fined by the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists and agreed never to testify in another criminal case. Nevertheless, the execution has been allowed to proceed.

Report: 75% of 2015 Executions Raised Serious Concerns About Mental Health or Innocence

Three quarters of American executions in 2015 involved cases of "crippling disabilities and uncertain guilt," according to a report by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University. Saying that the 2015 executions revealed "a broken capital punishment system," the report found that, "[o]f the 28 people executed [in 2015], 75% were mentally impaired or disabled, experienced extreme childhood trauma or abuse, or were of questionable guilt." It said seven people who were executed suffered from serious intellectual impairment or brain injury, including Warren Hill, who even the state's doctors agreed had intellectual disability, and Cecil Clayton, who lost 20% of his prefrontal cortex as a result of a sawmill accident. An additional seven suffered from serious mental illnesses. One, Andrew Brannan, was a decorated war veteran whom the Veterans Administration had classified as 100% disabled as a result of combat-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder from his service in Vietnam. The report identified five more cases in which the executed prisoners had experienced extreme childhood trauma and abuse, and another two - Lester Bower and Brian Keith Terrell - in which it said the executed men "were potentially innocent." The report also highlighted developments described in DPIC's Year End Report, including the increasing isolation of death penalty use to a small number of jurisdictions. "Only a handful of outlier counties still impose the death penalty," the report said, and an examination of practices in those counties often "reveals themes of overzealous prosecutors who often bend the rules, poorly performing defense lawyers, and a legacy of racial bias." As a result, "these outlier counties tend to [also have] an unacceptable history of convicting the innocent and individuals with crippling mental impairments." (Click image to enlarge.)

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Use of Death Penalty in 2015

On December 16, DPIC released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report." The death penalty declined by virtually every measure in 2015. 28 people were executed, the fewest since 1991. Death sentences dropped 33% from last year's historic low, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. There have now been fewer death sentences imposed in the last decade than in the decade before the U.S. Supreme Court declared existing death penalty laws unconstitutional in 1972. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1988; and three states (Texas, Missouri, and Georgia) accounted for 86% of all executions. For the first time since 1995, the number of people on death row fell below 3,000. Public support for the death penalty also dropped, and the 2015 American Values Survey found that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty as punishment for people convicted of murder. Six people were exonerated from death row this year, bringing the total number of exonerations since 1973 to 156. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC's Executive Director. See DPIC's Press ReleaseView a video summarizing the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

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