Texas legislators have failed to pass laws that could bring the state into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Atkins v. Virginia that bans the execution of those with mental retardation. Nearly a year after the Court's ruling in Atkins, Texas officials have no idea how many of the 449 death row inmates have the disability, and no safeguards to ensure that those affected by the ruling are not put to death. Most of the legislative efforts have focused on identifying defendants with mental retardation before their trials, not finding those who are already on death row. Houston defense attorney Dick Burr stated, "People facing the death penalty here are dependent on the good will of their lawyers. It means that some people are lucky and others are not." The state's testing has revealed that 7% of Texas convicts have IQs below 70, the commonly accepted benchmark for mental retardation. Thus, there could be as many as 31 condemned inmates who qualify to have their death sentences lifted. Texas Governor Rick Perry has stated that he believes that no one on death row has mental retardation, and his belief is echoed by Houston assistant district attorney Roe Wilson, who handles most of Harris County's capital appeals. "I don't know of any who are mentally retarded," Wilson said.
According to the FBI's Preliminary Uniform Crime Report for 2002, the murder rate in the South increased by 2.1% while the murder rate in the Northeast decreased by almost 5%. The South accounts for 82% of all executions since 1976; the Northeast accounts for less than 1%.
"Harmful Error," a new report released by the The Center for Public Integrity, is the end product of an extensive two-year review of prosecutorial misconduct around the nation. The report notes that while many local prosecutors perform their difficult work admirably, inadvertent and intentional misconduct still permeates some district attorneys' offices. Among other pieces of valuable information contained in the report, "Harmful Error" documents cases in which prosecutorial misconduct played a role in convicting innocent defendants, many of whom were sentenced to death.
By a vote of 7-2, the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown out the death sentence of Maryland death row inmate Kevin Wiggins, ruling that his inexperienced attorneys failed to adequately represent him at trial. Wiggins' original lawyers made no attempt to inform members of the jury that sent Wiggins to death row that their client was repeatedly raped, beaten and denied food as a child, and that his mother burned his hands on the stove as punishment. In an opinion authored by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court said that if jurors knew the ghastly details of Wiggins' childhood, they might have chosen a life sentence for Wiggins. Wiggins, who is borderline mentally retarded, will now receive a new sentencing hearing. Justices O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have publicly expressed qualms about the quality of legal help available to many people accused of murder.