Supreme Court Declines to Take Case of Federal Death Row Inmate With Mental Retardation

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the appeal of Bruce Webster, an inmate on the federal death row with evidence that he is intellectually disabed.  In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the execution of a person with intellectual disabilities (mental retardation) would be unconstitutional. Webster's evidence indicates that three federal doctors determined he had an intellectual disability when he applied for disability benefits in 1993, a year before he committed the murder that resulted in his death sentence. However, a 1996 law prohibits federal courts from considering new evidence discovered late in the appeals process unless it would prove the defendant’s innocence. In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Webster had exhausted his appeals and his recent evidence of intellectual disability could not be considered, even though it would bar his execution if allowed in. Judge Jacques Wiener, writing for the court, expressed dismay at the restraint of the law, stating, “We today have no choice but to condone just such an unconstitutional punishment.”  (A comparable situation would be the belated discovery that an inmate was a juvenile at the time of his crime--another bar to execution, but perhaps producing a different result.)

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NEW RESOURCES: Congressional Quarterly Publishes Death Penalty Review

Kenneth Jost of Congressional Quarterly has prepared a comprehensive review of the death penalty in the U.S. for the recent edition of the CQ Researcher.  The overview looks at death penalty trends in the past 10 years, public opinion, and arguments for and against repealing the death penalty.  Jost quotes many experts, including DPIC's Executive Director concerning the recent direction of capital punishment in the U.S. "'The decline in the use of the death penalty is the continuing story,' says Richard Dieter, the [Death Penalty Information] center's Executive Director.  'Death sentences, executions, the number of states that have the death penalty, and the size of the population on death row have all declined in the last decade.' The Center's statistics bear out Dieter's claims," Jost writes.  The report is accompanied by charts and graphs illustrating important trends, and contains a bibliography, chronology, and places to go for more information.  The significance of the innocence issue, including the large number of exonerations from death row in recent years, is highlighted in the review.  The volume concludes with a debate on whether the death penalty deserves to be retained between DPIC's Richard Dieter and Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

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Texas Inmate May Be Executed Despite Proof of Intellectual Disability

Michael Hall was sentenced to death in 2000 in Texas for kidnapping and murder. At the time of his trial, his IQ was measured at 67. Generally, a person with intellectual disability is defined as someone with an IQ of 70 or lower, along with limitations in adaptive skills. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing someone who has an intellectual disability (mental retardation) constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, but the high court left it to each state to define and enforce the prohibition. State and federal judges in Texas have ruled that, even though Hall is mentally slow, he does not demonstrate an intellectual disability sufficient to be exempted from capital punishment in Texas.  Lawyers for Hall petitioned the high court to examine whether Texas has adopted adequate procedures to determine whether someone has an intellectual disability and whether those procedures were followed in Hall’s case in line with constitutional safeguards. The Supreme Court has declined to take up Hall's appeal.

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Georgia and Virginia Executions Raise Concerns About Mental Disabilities

Brandon Rhode (pictured) in Georgia received a second reprieve following his suicide attempt just prior to his scheduled execution on September 21.  His execution is now set for September 27 at 7 pm, despite questions about his mental competency.  Rhode has been diagnosed as suffering from organic brain damage and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). According to experts, mental deficiencies associated with FASD exacerbate the impairments associated with adolescent brain immaturity.  Rhode was likely functioning at a younger level than his chronological age when he committed the crime that sent him to death row. His lawyer, Brian Kammer, asked the Georgia Supreme Court to stop the execution altogether: “The stress and barbarity of his present situation, coupled with his longstanding depression and mental illness, has resulted in Brandon Rhode now experiencing dissociative episodes as his mind tries unsuccessfully to cope with his current physical condition.”  Rhode was rushed to the hospital after slashing his arms and neck on the day before his originally scheduled execution. The case raises some of the concerns regarding the execution of Teresa Lewis in Virginia. Lewis was assessed as borderline intellectually disabled with an IQ of 72.  Gov. McDonnell refused to grant her clemency and she was executed on Sept. 23.

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Kentucky Judge Rules Against Lethal Injection Protocol and Halts Execution

On September 10, Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled that Kentucky’s new execution protocol is inconsistent with state law and does not provide safeguards to prevent an inmate who is intellectually disabled or criminally insane from being executed. As a result, Judge Shepherd stayed the September 16 execution of Gregory Wilson, stating, “Because the state's protocol doesn't include a mechanism to determine if someone is mentally retarded and there are serious questions about Wilson's mental state, the execution cannot go forward.” Wilson’s attorney has stated that the only mental test given to him showed an IQ of 62, well below the limit of 70 usually used as an indication of intellectual disability. Judge Shepherd wrote, “The Court finds there is a good faith basis to believe that Wilson may be ineligible for the death penalty,” and noted that "Mr. Wilson appears to be the only inmate on death row in Kentucky who had no lawyer at trial."  The judge also questioned why Kentucky's new protocol did not allow for a 1-drug lethal injection process since that is permitted under the state law.  The state is appealing the ruling.

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Death Row Chaplain is Certain: "This Woman Doesn't Deserve to Die"

Teresa Lewis is scheduled to be executed on September 23 in Virginia, the first woman to be executed in that state in a century.  But Lynn Litchfield, the former prison chaplain who came to know Lewis over six years, has said she "doesn't deserve to die."  Litchfield recently wrote in Newsweek Magazine that Lewis "has an IQ of 72" and that "one of the the two men who carried out the killings admitt[ed] that it was he, not she, who masterminded the murders" of her husband and adult stepson. Ms. Lewis has taken full responsibility for her role in the crime. The men who actually carried out the killings were given life sentences, while Lewis pleaded guilty and received a death sentence. The former chaplain's complete column in Newsweek's "My Turn" is below.

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Woman with Mental Disabilities Facing Execution in Virginia

An execution date of September 23 was recently set for Teresa Lewis, the only woman on Virginia’s death row. Although a number of other people were involved in the same crime, including the actual shooters of the two victims, Lewis was the only person sentenced to death.  She pled guilty at trial.  Since being sent to death row in 2002, Lewis has taken responsibility and apologized for her actions.  She has had an exemplary record while in prison and does not appear to be a future danger if she remained there.  Her current attorneys have pointed to her low IQ (measured as low as 72) and her vulnerability to being led by others as mitigating factors for the crime.  She has a Dependent Personality Disorder and suffered from other mental disabilities at the time of the crime.  If her execution goes through, Lewis would be the first woman to be executed in Virginia since 1912 and the first in the United States since 2005.

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Federal Inmate Faces Execution Despite Clear Evidence of Intellectual Disability

Bruce Webster faces a federal execution despite new evidence--including evaluations by three doctors--indicating he is intellectually disabled. Although the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of the “mentally retarded” (now referred to as “intellectually disabled”) in 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in April denied Webster’s request for a hearing on his mental capacity claim. The court found that Webster had exhausted all his appeals and that the court could not consider new evidence unless it related to Webster's innocence.  The fact that the new evidence would make him ineligible for the death penalty under the constitution was insufficient to grant him a hearing.  Judge Jacques Wiener, writing for the Fifth Circuit, contended that the court was limited because Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996: “We today have no choice but to condone just such an unconstitutional punishment.” The judge agreed that the evidence would show that Webster was intellectually disabled, "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." David Bruck, a death penalty expert at Washington and Lee University law school said, "It's an outrageous situation. Sometimes the law just doesn't fit the facts. This is one of those times."

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Federal Court Finds Georgia's Standards for Mental Retardation (Intellectual Disability) Unconstitutional

On June 18, a federal appeals court in Atlanta held that the burden Georgia places on death-penalty defendants to prove they are intellectually disabled, and thus exempt from the death penalty, is unconstitutional. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit said that requiring defendants to prove intellectual disability (mental retardation) "beyond a reasonable doubt" violates the Eighth Amendment's ban against cruel and unusual punishments. It could also result in the execution of intellectually disabled defendants, which the U.S. Supreme Court barred in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia.  "This conception of the reasonable doubt standard, by its very terms, ensures that some, if not many, mentally retarded offenders will be executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment," said the court.  Fred Bright, a district attorney in Georgia, said the ruling came as no surprise. "I like to try a death case once and get it right the first time. I knew Georgia's law was hanging by a thread because it was all the way out there all by itself."  The ruling could result in new hearings for 10 death row inmates according to the Georgia Appellate Practice and Educational Resource Center. The defendant in the current case is Warren Hill, who was sentenced to death in 1991 despite evidence that he was mentally retarded.

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Mental Health Experts Say North Carolina Case Shows Need to Exempt Mentally Ill from Death Penalty

In North Carolina, Kristin Parks of Disability Rights N.C. and John Tote of the Mental Health Association-N.C. pointed to the case of Abdullah El-Amin Shareef as illustrating the need for a law exempting the mentall ill from the death penalty.  A jury recently sentenced Shareef to life in prison without parole in a case where prosecutors had sought the death penalty. In April 2004, Shareef committed a senseless crime that killed one man and injured three others, primarily because his paranoid schizophrenia went untreated. At the time, Shareef was declared incompetent to stand trial.  A psychiatrist described Shareef's behavior on the day of the incident as "the result of an extreme condition of psychosis."  Recently, a judge said he could now be tried after years of medication and treatment.  The authors of the op-ed in the Charlotte-Observer noted, "A death penalty trial is a long and heartbreaking experience for victims' families, and likely especially so when they want the offender executed but the verdict is life. In the Shareef trial, much pain and many resources could have been saved had a law that has been proposed in the General Assembly been in effect. "  

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