Intellectual Disability

Taken Off Death Row in 2014, Intellectually Disabled South Carolina Man Now Gets New Trial

South Carolina prosecutors announced on July 25 that they would not appeal a trial court ruling, granting a new, non-capital trial to former death-row prisoner Kenneth Simmons (pictured). Finding that prosecutors had presented false DNA testimony that "severely deprived" Simmons of his due process rights, a Dorchester County Circuit Judge overturned Simmons's conviction. Simmons had been sentenced to death for the 1996 sexual assault and murder of an elderly woman based on false and misleading DNA testimony that purported to link him to the murder and a confession obtained under questionable circumstances. Simmons's death sentence was vacated in 2014 and replaced with a life sentence after the South Carolina Supreme Court determined that he has Intellectual Disability. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins vVirginia that applying the death penalty to persons with Intellectual Disability violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. Prosecutors had initially asked Judge Doyet A. Early III to alter his 2016 decision granting Simmons a new trial. On June 23, he declined, reaffirming his finding that the prosecution's "misrepresentation of the strength of the DNA evidence to the jury" was "overwhelming," given that the confession had been extracted from "an intellectually disabled man, after multiple non-recorded interrogations, [who] had falsely confessed to other crimes before confessing to the murder." Judge Early wrote that the prosecution had presented the jury with "confusing, misleading, and inaccurate" information about the DNA evidence, including showing the jury a chart that contained fabricated DNA results, using the chart to make additional incorrect claims about the DNA evidence during closing arguments, and falsely arguing that Simmons was the only possible source of the DNA. During state post-conviction proceedings, the state's forensic witness recanted her testimony about the DNA, and the court found that her trial testimony "had no evidentiary value in identifying" Simmons. Simmons's efforts to obtain a new trial drew support from The Innocence Network and advocacy groups for people with disabilities, which stressed the increased risk of false confessions and wrongful conviction in cases with intellectually disabled defendants. In 2000, Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder commuted the death sentence imposed on another intellectually disabled death-row prisoner, Earl Washington, who had falsely confessed to a rape and murder after DNA testing suggested he had not committed the offenses. Governor Jim Gilmore later granted Wahington a complete pardon after additional DNA testing excluded him as the rapist. In 2014, two intellectually disabled brothers, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were freed because of evidence uncovered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, three decades after having been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Both had been subjected to coercive interrogations and said they were unaware they were signing a confession.

Resentencing of Intellectually Disabled Prisoner Highlights Death Penalty Decline in South Carolina and Nationwide

In 1989, William Henry Bell, Jr. was convicted of murdering an elementary school principal. Nearly 30 years later, South Carolina's Free Times reports that the reversal of his death sentence because of intellectual disability provides evidence of the death penalty's continuing decline in the state and across the country. At the time of the murder, Bell maintained that he was innocent, but after four days in jail, he confessed to the murder. Prior appeals—including one alleging a pattern of racially discriminatory charging practices in interracial crimes involving black defendants and white victims—failed for 25 years, until a trial judge in November 2016 determined that Bell was ineligible for capital punishment because he had Intellectual Disability. In May 2017, the state attorney general's office decided it lacked grounds to appeal the court's decision, leaving Bell to face resentencing with a maximum penalty of life without parole. Emily Paavola, one of Bell's attorneys, said the case fits into a larger narrative of South Carolina's declining use of capital punishment. “It is increasingly hard to justify retaining the death penalty in South Carolina. Prosecutors rarely seek it, juries more rarely impose it, and even when the rare individual is sentenced to death, the odds are that the defendant will not be executed. We can no longer afford the financial and social costs of such a broken system,” she wrote. The last execution in South Carolina took place in 2011, and since that time only one person has been sentenced to death in the state. Similar declines have occurred nationwide, with death sentences and executions both dropping sharply in recent years. Fewer people were sentenced to death in 2016 than in any year since states began re-enacting the death penalty in 1973, and executions in 2016 were at their lowest level in 25 years. 

Intellectually Disabled Ex-Death Row Prisoner Released from Texas Prison After Decades Without a Valid Conviction

Jerry Hartfield, an intellectually disabled prisoner whose conviction and death sentence was overturned in 1980, was freed from prison in Texas on June 12, 2017, having spent 35 years in jail without a valid conviction and without being retried. Hartfield, whose IQ is in the 50s or 60s, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1977 on charges that he had murdered a bus station worker. Hartfield confessed to the crime, but has long asserted his innocence and that his confession was coerced. In 1980, he was granted a new trial because a prospective juror had been improperly excluded over reservations about the death penalty. Prosecutors tried for three years to change Hartfield's sentence to life without parole, including seeking a commutation from Governor Mark White, but in 1983 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals again directed that Hartfield be retried. Soon after, Governor White issued an order to commute Hartfield's sentence to life in prison. Prosecutors and the governor's staff assumed that ended the litigation in Hartfield's case, while the courts assumed prosecutors were moving forward to comply with the second retrial order. Hartfield's attorney decided not to push for a retrial. For 23 years, Hartfield waited, until in 2006, he tried to find out what was happening in his case. Another prisoner, Kevin Althouse, helped Hartfield write requests to state judges, but they were all summarily rejected. Finally, a federal judge granted Hartfield's request for a lawyer, who ruled that Hartfield was being held without a valid conviction, and that because there was no conviction, the governor's attempted commutation was ineffectual. The case bounced between federal and state courts until a judge ordered a retrial in 2013. By the time the retrial finally took place in 2015, two key witnesses had died, all of the physical evidence had been lost or destroyed, and most of Hartfield's family members who could have offered mitigation testimony had died. Hartfield was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, Hartfield's lawyers argued that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated. An appeals court agreed, and ordered him released. Hartfield told The Marshall Project, “I am not bitter. I am not angry. [The prosecutors] were only doing their jobs, and I respect them for that."

STUDY: Juries Have Never Found Anyone Intellectually Disabled Under Georgia's Insurmountable Standard of Proof

No death penalty jury has ever found a defendant charged with intentional murder to be ineligible for the death penalty under Georgia's intellectual disability law, according to a new empirical study published in Georgia State University Law Review. The study, by Georgia State Law Professor Lauren Sudeall Lucas, examined 30 years of jury verdicts under the state's Guilty But Mentally Retarded statute, which has the most onerous standard in the nation for proving intellectual disability. “Georgia is an outlier," Lucas says. It is the only state to require a capital defendant to prove his or her intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt, and the only state to require that this determination be made at the same time that the jury is considering the defendant's guilt. “This study provides, for the first time, an accounting of how Georgia defendants have been unable to overcome the very high burden of establishing intellectual disability before a jury at the guilt phase of a capital trial—a finding that," Lucas says, "has never occurred in a case of intentional murder.” In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that defendants with intellectual disability—then known as mental retardation—cannot be executed. The ruling, however, left states with discretion in establishing procedures for determining which defendants have intellectual disability. Some states responded by adopting practices that made it more difficult to prove intellectual disability. In two recent cases, Hall v. Florida (2014) and Moore v. Texas (2017), the Supreme Court struck down other outlier intellectual disability standards that deviated from accepted clinical definitions of intellectual disability. It has never ruled on Georgia's standard of proof. To illustrate the effect of Georgia's outlier practice, Lucas explores the case of Warren Hill (pictured), whom Georgia executed in 2015 even though every mental health expert who had evaluated Hill agreed he had intellectual disability. A state court judge found that Hill had proven his intellectual disability by a "preponderance of the evidence" (more likely than not), the standard employed in nearly every death penalty state. However, the state courts ruled that Hill had not proven his intellectual disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the use of that standard, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the cae, and Hill was executed. Lucas concludes, "The absence of a single jury finding of intellectual disability in an intentional murder death penalty case in the nearly three decades of the statutory exemption, and the absence of a single jury finding of intellectual disability in any murder case post-Atkins, leaves little question that Georgia’s statute has failed to protect those with intellectual disability from execution as promised, and as required by the U.S. Constitution and Georgia constitution."

Supreme Court Tells Alabama to Reconsider the Factors It Has Used to Determine Intellectual Disability

The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated the Alabama state courts' rejection of a prisoner's claim that he is ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability, and directed the state to reconsider his claim in light of the Court's recent decision in Moore v. Texas requiring states to employ scientifically accepted standards in determining whether a death-row prisoner is intellectually disabled. On May 1, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case of Taurus Carroll, and vacated the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals' decision in his case after Carroll's lawyer argued that the March 28 decision in Moore established that Alabama had unconstitutionally deviated from accepted methods of determining intellectual disability. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that defendants who are found to have intellectual disability—then known as mental retardation—cannot be executed. The ruling left states with discretion in establishing procedures for determining which defendants have intellectual disability. In Moore, however, the Court reiterated that this discretion is not “unfettered” and that a state's intellectually disability determination must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” The Court struck down Texas' use of an unscientific set of lay stereotypes, known as the “Briseño factors," that Texas had used to determine whether Moore had deficits in adaptive functioning characteristic of intellectual disability. The Court said that, "[i]n concluding that Moore did not suffer significant adaptive deficits, the [Texas courts] overemphasized Moore’s perceived adaptive strengths," but "the medical community focuses the adaptive-functioning inquiry on adaptive deficits." In Carroll's case, the Alabama courts had considered Mr. Carroll’s supposed adaptive strengths—that he had passed a GED exam and successfully held down a job in the prison kitchen—as proof that he was not intellectually disabled. Carroll's attorney argued that, “As in Moore, the consideration below of Mr. Carroll’s adaptive functioning ‘deviate[s] from prevailing clinical standards, by ‘overemphasiz[ing] Mr. [Carroll]’s perceived adaptive strengths.” He also argued that Alabama had unconstitutionally employed a strict IQ cutoff score, while at the same time inflating Carroll's IQ score by refusing to apply scientifically established factors that adjust for limitations in IQ testing. With the Supreme Court's ruling in Carroll's case, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals must now determine how Moore affects Alabama's methods of determining intellectual disability. John Palombi, a lawyer with the Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama, said he was "pleased" with the Court's decision. “This will require Alabama courts to follow scientific principles when making the life or death decision of whether someone charged with capital murder is intellectually disabled,” he said.

Supreme Court Overturns Texas' "Outlier" Standard for Determining Intellectual Disability in Capital Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously struck down Texas' standard for evaluating intellectual disability in death penalty cases, calling the state's approach an "outlier" that, "[b]y design and in operation, ... create[s] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." In Moore v. Texas, the Court on March 28 vacated the judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), which had applied an unscientific set of lay stereotypes known as the “Briseño factors” (named after the Texas court decision that announced them) to overturn a trial court determination that Texas death-row prisoner Bobby Moore was intellectually disabled. The Court described these seven factors—including such things as whether lay people who knew the defendant thought he was intellectually disabled and whether he could hide facts or lie effectively—as an unscientific "invention" of the CCA that was "untied to any acknowledged source" and that lacked support from "any authority, medical or judicial." The Supreme Court ruled in 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, that the execution of individuals with intellectual disability was unconstitutional, but it left states with some discretion in determining who was intellectually disabled. However, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the five-justice majority, reiterated, "States’ discretion ... is not unfettered.” "[A] court’s intellectual disability determination," she wrote must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework." The Moore decision is the second time in recent years that the Court has addressed state deviations from clinical definitions of intellectual disability, which focus on "three core elements: (1) intellectual-functioning deficits, (2) adaptive deficits, and (3) the onset of these deficits while still a minor." The Court struck down Florida's use of a strict IQ cutoff in the 2014 case Hall v. Florida, noting that Florida's standard, "disregards established medical practice." The Hall decision addressed the first element, intellectual-functioning, while Moore addressed aspects of both the first and second, adaptive deficits. Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented from the portion of the Court's opinion that held that Texas had inappropriately rejected Moore's evidence of the first prong, deficits in intellectual functioning. But they joined the Court in rejecting Texas' use of the Briseño factors, calling it “an unacceptable method of enforcing the guarantee of Atkins.”

American Bar Association Human Rights Magazine on Capital Punishment

Human Rights Magazine, a quarterly publication by the American Bar Association, focused its first-quarter 2017 edition on capital punishment, marking the 40th anniversary of Gregg v. Georgia. Articles by nationally-renowned death penalty experts examine geographic disparities in death sentences, secrecy and lethal injection, intellectual disability, mental illness, and other critical questions in the current discourse around the death penalty. In the introduction to the magazine, Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida and chair of the ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project, and Misty Thomas, staff director of the ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project, write, "Forty years after Gregg, attorneys, scholars, and advocates continue to debate whether our collective con­cerns regarding the arbitrary and discriminatory application of the death penalty have indeed been ade­quately addressed. The anniversary of this crucial decision—which marks, in effect, the “birth” of the modern death penalty—provides an essential opportunity for reflection and con­sideration of this critical question." 

Texas Court Orders Release of Former Death Row Prisoner Who Spent 32 Years in Prison Without a Valid Conviction

A Texas Court of Appeals ruled on January 19, 2017 that all charges against Jerry Hartfield should be dismissed with prejudice after the state had kept the intellectually disabled former death row prisoner in prison for 32 years without retrying him after his conviction had been overturned. Calling the situation a "criminal judicial nightmare," the court ruled that the three-decade delay in trying Hartfield violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial. Hartfield had been convicted and sentenced to death for a 1976 murder, but in 1983, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction and death sentence because a juror in his case had been improperly excluded. Hartfield, an illiterate man with an IQ of 51, believed he was awaiting retrial, but prosecutors were working to render the court's ruling moot under Texas law by having the governor commute his sentence to life. However, they failed to do so in the time period prescribed by law, and then-Governor Mark White's order attempting to commute Hartfield's former death sentence to life without parole was without legal effect. Hartfield's attorneys did nothing further because they believed they were done with the case. In 2006, a fellow prisoner helped Hartfield begin filing motions in his case. In 2013, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals told him his motions were improperly filed because the provision under which he sought review applied only to people who had been convicted. At that point, he refiled his claims saying he was improperly incarcerated without a conviction, and finally got a new trial. Hartfield's new lawyers then asked for the charges to be dismissed because he had not received a speedy trial, but prosecutors successfully persuaded the trial court that Hartfield himself was partly to blame for the delay. In 2015, he was retried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. If his sentence were counted from his first trial, his 38 years in prison would have made him eligible for parole. He appealed his conviction, once again arguing that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated, and a Texas Court of Appeals agreed, noting that there was precedent for a delay of as many as eight years, but not 32. Prosecutors may appeal the ruling to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. David R. Dow of the University of Houston Law Center, one of the lawyers who represented Mr. Hartfield on appeal, described Hartfield's case as, “the perfect storm of everything that could go wrong with the criminal justice system.”

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