An Indiana federal district court judge has vacated the death sentence imposed on federal death-row prisoner Bruce Webster, finding that Webster is ineligible for the death penalty because he is intellectually disabled. After a five-day hearing in April 2019, in which the court heard live testimony from seven mental health experts and considered deposition testimony from three others, Senior Judge William T. Lawrence of the Southern District of Indiana ruled on June 18, 2019 that new evidence showed that Webster had intellectual and adaptive deficits in functioning that qualified him for a diagnosis of Intellectual Disability, making him ineligible for execution.

Webster was convicted and sentenced to death in a federal district court in Texas in 1996, six years before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Atkins v. Virginia banned the execution of people with intellectual disability. His lawyers presented some evidence of his intellectual disability at trial, but only four of the twelve jurors believed he was intellectually disabled. His appeal lawyers later discovered undisclosed government records containing additional evidence of his disability and attempted to present it to the court in 2010, but a federal appeals court said he had exhausted his appeals and new evidence could be considered only if it related to innocence of the crime. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jacques Wiener wrote at the time, “If the evidence that Webster attempts to introduce here were ever presented to a judge or jury for consideration on the merits, it is virtually guaranteed that he would be found to be mentally retarded” (now known as intellectually disabled). Although recognizing that Atkins barred the death penalty In such circumstances, Weiner said, “[w]e today have no choice but to condone just such an unconstitutional punishment.”

The Fifth Circuit’s decision was subsequently overturned, and Webster—incarcerated on federal death row in Terra Haute, Indiana—was permitted to present the evidence to an Indiana federal court. Webster’s habeas corpus lawyer, Steven Wells, called Judge Lawrence’s ruling “a groundbreaking and just outcome for Mr. Webster, an intellectually disabled man who never should have been sentenced to death.” Federal prosecutors said they are still considering whether to appeal the decision.

In 2008, more than a decade after Webster was convicted, a private law firm took on his case pro bono and discovered Social Security records that his trial lawyers had tried unsuccessfully to obtain. “The Social Security Administration failed to provide information critical to Mr. Webster’s defense, despite the request,” Wells said. “The government continued to pursue his execution even after being made aware of the new evidence.” The Social Security records included an application for benefits predating the time of the murder in which Webster was deemed eligible for benefits because of disability. The records contained a statement by a psychologist that described Webster’s intellectual functioning as “quite limited,” noting that a form he filled out was “rife with errors in syntax, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and thought.” Judge Lawrence wrote, “The application materials revealed that Webster was barely literate.” He ruled that Webster had proven “by a preponderance of the evidence” that he is intellectually disabled.

With the vacation of Webster’s death sentence, sixty federal prisoners now face active death sentences. Thirteen prisoners whom federal juries had sentenced to death have since been resentenced to life without parole after courts found their death sentences had been unconstitutionally imposed. The federal death sentences imposed on Ronell Wilson and Paul Hardy were vacated and Arboleda Ortiz’s death sentence was commuted because of intellectual disability.


Paul Walsh, Minneapolis law firm wins death sen­tence rever­sal for Arkansas man with intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty, Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 20, 2019; LaVendrick Smith, Mentally dis­abled killer gets off death row 25 years after Arlington teen was raped, buried alive, Dallas Morning News, June 21, 2019; Juan A. Lozano, Judge vacates fed­er­al death sen­tence in 1994 Texas case, Associated Press, June 20, 2019. Read the dis­trict court’s opin­ion in Webster v. Lockett.