Is Racially Biased Testimony Wrongly Subjecting Intellectually Disabled Defendants to the Death Penalty?
The U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia categorically bars states from executing any person who has Intellectual Disability. (Daryl Atkins is pictured.) However, as reported in recent stories in Pacific Standard Magazine and the newspaper, The Atlanta Black Star, some states have attempted to circumvent the Atkins ruling by using social stereotypes and race as grounds to argue that defendants of color are not intellectually disabled. Prosecutors in at least eight states have presented opinions from expert witnesses that "ethnic adjustments" should be applied to IQ tests and tests of adaptive functioning that would deny an intellectual disability diagnosis to Black or Latino defendants who, if they were White, would be considered intellectually disabled and ineligible for the death penalty. "Ethnic adjustments" typically take one of two forms. One adjustment purports to compensate for perceived racial bias in IQ testing by boosting the defendant's IQ scores. A second form of adjustment is determining, based upon the expert witness's subjective views about a defendant's social conditions and culture, that impairments in day-to-day functioning that would be considered adaptive deficits for White defendants are not as rare for a person with the defendant's racial, ethnic, and socio-economic background, and so are not evidence of intellectual disability. Robert M. Sanger, a trial lawyer and professor of law and forensic science at Santa Barbara College of Law in California who wrote the 2015 law review article IQ, Intelligence Tests, 'Ethnic Adjustments' and Atkins called the use of these adjustments "outrageous." “What these so-called experts do," Sanger says, "is say that, because people of color are not as likely to score as well on IQ tests, you should, therefore, increase their IQ scores from 5 to 15 points to make up for some unknown or undescribed problem in the test.” Sanger has documented the use of ethnic adjustments by prosecutors in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. “The idea of racially classifying a person and then using 'ethnic adjustments' to increase his or her IQ score, thereby qualifying that person for execution, is logically, clinically, and constitutionally unsound,” Sanger wrote. IQ scores, he says, are affected by a variety of environmental factors "such as childhood abuse, poverty, stress, and trauma[, that] can cause decreases in actual IQ scores." Because people who experience these environmental factors "disproportionately populate death row, ethnic adjustments make it more likely that individuals who are actually intellectually disabled will be put to death." Moreover, the courts have repeatedly rejected the adjusting of test scores on the basis of race in cases that would benefit racial minorities, Sanger said, most prominently in cases in which African-American applicants for police or firefighting jobs had alleged that cities were using racially discriminatory tests. Sanger says "it’s sort of outrageous that you can adjust scores upward so you can be killed, but not so you can get a job.” In 2011, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists reprimanded psychologist Dr. George Denkowski for his misuse of ethnic adjustments in death-penalty cases. As part of an agreement dismissing disciplinary charges against him, Denkowski—who testified against sixteen Texas death-row prisoners, several of whom have been executed—was fined $5,500 and agreed that he would never again conduct intellectual disability evaluations in criminal cases. On January 4, 2018, Philadelphia prosecutors, who had used Denkowski's ethnic adjustments as part their argument that Pennsylvania death-row prisoner Jose DeJesus was not intellectually disabled, agreed that DeJesus should be resentenced to life. Ethnic adjustments are only some of the non-scientific barriers states have erected to avoid compliance with Atkins. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that Florida had unconstitutionally emplyed an IQ cut-off score to reject claims of intellectual disability. In 2017, in Moore v. Texas, the court rejected the state's use of a set of unscientific lay stereotypes to claim that a defendant did not have the adaptive deficits necessary to be considered intellectually disabled. The Court called Texas's approach an "outlier" that, "[b]y design and in operation, ... create[s] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." Moore reiterated that a court’s determination of intellectual disability in a death-penalty case must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework."
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Pennsylvania Death-Row Prisoners File Lawsuit Challenging Automatic, Permanent Solitary Confinement
Five prisoners on death row in Pennsylvania have filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the Commonwealth's policy mandating solitary confinement for all condemned prisoners. The five named plaintiffs have been held in solitary confinement between 16 and 27 years each, kept in cells the size of a parking space, allowed out for a maximum of two hours per day for exercise, and denied human contact with family members during prison visits. The prisoners, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Abolitionist Law Center, and three law firms, call these conditions "degrading" and "inhumane" and say the "policy and practice of automatically and permanently placing all death-sentenced prisoners in solitary confinement" is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said Pennsylvania's death-row solitary confinment "until either the prisoner is executed, or dies of natural causes, or has his death sentence overturned is very different from the way solitary confinement is used for all other prisoners. For all other prisoners, you earn your way in and you earn your way out. You serve your punishment, and, if you behave, you can come back to the general population.” While many states still keep death-row prisoners in solitary confinement, that practice is changing. At least eight states have recently allowed death-row prisoners more time outside their cells, including Arizona, which changed its policy in 2017 in response to a similar lawsuit. According to the Pennsylvania suit, however, about 80% of those currently on death row have been held in solitary confinement for more than ten years. The United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners prohibits solitary confinement for periods longer than 15 days. One of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit who has been held in solitary confinement for 21 years "describe[d] his experience as ‘psychological torture,’ where prisoners are ‘treated like animals’ and forced to ‘depend on everybody for everything.'" The lawsuit says "[h]e feels ‘trapped in [his] cell’ – and his ‘mind is like a popcorn machine.’” Pennsylvania's death-row conditions were challenged in 1980, but upheld by a federal court. “In the intervening time, there has been a sea change in the scientific understanding of solitary confinement and increasing recognition by the courts that this crosses constitutional boundaries when it is prolonged,” said Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center. Just last year, a federal court ordered Pennsylvania to end its practice of keeping prisoners in solitary confinement even after their death sentences had been vacated, until they were formally resentenced or released. The retrial or resentencing process often took many years and, in some cases, took decades.
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Pledging No Death Penalty, Larry Krasner Sworn In As Philadelphia's District Attorney
Saying “[a] movement was sworn in today,” long-time civil-rights lawyer Larry Krasner (pictured)—who pledged to end Philadelphia's use of the death penalty—took the oath of office on January 2 as district attorney in a county that only five years ago had the third largest death row of any county in the country. Krasner's inaugural address put a face on the “[t]ransformational change in criminal justice" he had called for during the election, saying it was time to begin “trading jails—and death row—for schools,” “jail cells occupied by people suffering from addiction for treatment and harm reduction,” and “division between police and the communities they serve for unity and reconciliation.” Krasner's election has drawn national attention, as social-justice activists focus on new strategies to bring about social change. The Los Angeles Times placed Krasner among "a growing list of district attorneys around the country ... who have declared that their role isn’t simply to prosecute, but to protect defendants from the excesses of the criminal justice system." The American Prospect described "[t]he relatively quick swing from a death penalty devotee to a crusading reformer at the helm of a major American city’s DA office [as] both a distillation of a long-brewing shift in the politics of crime—away from the standard tough-on-crime bromides and toward a smarter approach to justice—and emblematic of a new recognition from progressives that electing allies into DA offices could be one of the most effective ways to reform the system from the inside." Since 2015, "reform" prosecutors have been elected to replace prosecutors in counties historically known for their aggressive use of the death penalty, including Harris (Houston), Texas; Duval (Jacksonville), Orange (Orlando), and Hillsborough (Tampa), Florida; Caddo Parish (Shreveport), Louisiana; and Jefferson (Birmingham), Alabama. But Clarise McCants, campaign director for the racial-justice organization, Color of Change, is eyeing upcoming district attorney races in 2018, saying “[t]he small number of [reform-minded] prosecutors we have elected so far is nothing compared to the kind of impact we could have.” Krasner takes the reins of an office most recently headed by Ronald Castille, Lynne Abraham, and Seth Williams. Castille served as district attorney from 1986-1991, obtaining 45 death sentences and then participating in appeals in those cases after being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Abraham was dubbed “America's Deadliest DA,” obtaining 108 death sentences in her 19 years as district attorney between 1991 and 2009. She was replaced by Williams, who resigned after being convicted in 2017 of corruption charges. Krasner's election culminates two decades of dramatically declining death penalty use in Philadelphia. Death sentences, which averaged 9.9 per year in the 1990s, have fallen to an average of fewer than one per year this decade.
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