EDITORIALS: "An Intolerable Burden of Proof"

An editorial in the New York Times criticized a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, upholding the heavy burden Georgia places on offenders with intellectual disabilities.  In order to be exempt from the death penalty, defendants must prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that they are mentally retarded.  The U.S. Supreme Court held in 2002 that such defendants cannot receive the death penalty, but the Court left the procedures for determining this status to the states.  According to the editorial, Georgia is the only state requiring this extremely difficult standard of proof.  They called on the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Georgia's law. The editorial concluded, “[W]hen the court ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of the mentally retarded, it made plain that states cannot weaken that protection with an unfair procedural standard. In this and other ways, Georgia’s death penalty subverts the Constitution and is further evidence that capital punishment should be abolished.”  Read full editorial below.

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BOOKS: "Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong"

A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Raymond Bonner, Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong, investigates the shortcomings of the justice system in the case of Edward Lee Elmore, a black man sentenced to death in South Carolina in 1982. Elmore, who was semi-literate with intellectual disabilities, was sent to death row for the murder and sexual assault of a white woman, even though there was little connection between him and the victim.  He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death barely ninety days after the victim's body was found. Bonner describes a comprehensive story of racism, prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective representation in Elmore's case and concludes that the same injustices occur in other murder cases across the country. DPIC Note: Elmore was eventually spared from execution when a South Carolina court ruled in 2010 that he suffered from mental retardation.  At one time, he was the longest serving death row inmate in the state.

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EDITORIALS: Texas Inmate With IQ of 62 Faces Imminent Execution

A recent editorial in the Houston Chronicle highlights the case of Texas death-row inmate Milton Mathis, whose IQ of 62 places him well below the threshold for intellectual disability (formerly called "mental retardation"). Mr. Mathis faces execution on June 21, despite the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, which banned the execution of inmates with intellectual disabilities. The Chronicle noted, "If put to death, Milton Mathis would have one of the lowest — if not the lowest - undisputed IQ scores of any Texas inmate sentenced to capital punishment since that ruling took effect."  Mathis' lawyers raised this issue in both his state and federal appeals, but the state court rejected the claim, and the federal court denied a stay, not realizing that doing so prevented further litigation in state court. The federal judge later realized her error, but at that point, she lacked jurisdiction to change the ruling. Andrea Keilen, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, said, "What is really troubling is that in this case process has trumped substance. The evidence of mental retardation is compelling, overwhelming, and, because the state courts heard it, the federal courts have not allowed the evidence to be introduced." The Chronicle concluded: "In essence, barring federal intervention or the governor's clemency, Texas will unlawfully and unjustly execute a mentally retarded individual because of legal technicalities and the state's failure to weigh Mathis' clinical condition." Read full editorial below.

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STUDIES: Jurors May Be Allowing Intellectually Disabled Defendants to be Executed

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that the intellectually disabiled (mentally retarded) are barred from the death penalty, the decision of whether a defendant meets this disability standard is not made by mental health experts but by jurors and judges.  A recent study published in Law & Psychology Review found that jurors expect a much lower level of intellectual functioning than mental health experts to arrive at a finding of disability.  Moreover, jurors are persuaded away from a disability finding by statements that the defendant knew his actions were wrong--even though such knowledge should not disqualify someone from being intellectually disabled. The study concluded that "jury pool members were less likely than experienced mental health workers to see severe impairments in functioning as evidence" of an intellectual disability. The implication of these findings is that fact finders are likely to fail to identify defendants with more moderate intellectual disabilities, even when impairments clearly meet diagnostic criteria used by mental heath professionals.  Read full study.

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IN MEMORIAM: Marie Deans, A Life of Commitment to Justice and Founder of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation

On April 15, 2011, Marie McFadden Deans died in Charlottesville, Virginia. For three decades, Deans sought justice for death row inmates who had no other recourse and who had been poorly represented.  Professor Todd Peppers of Roanoke College wrote in an op-ed about her life that she brought "basic conditions of decency to the men who inhabited Virginia’s death row,... refin[ed] the use of mitigation evidence in death penalty trials, [and] struggl[ed] to exonerate factually innocent men." Deans's commitment to repealing the death penalty was sparked after the murder of her mother-in-law, Penny Deans, by an escaped convict. Marie founded Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, an organization, designed to give those who opposed the death penalty “a safe place from which they could speak out.”  She  was a self-taught mitigation expert, and, largely because of her efforts, only two of the 200 men that she helped defend during their sentencing hearings were ultimately given the death penalty. Perhaps her greatest triumph was the exoneration of Virginia death row inmate Earl Washington, Jr., a man with intellectual disabilities, whose false confession was the product of police coercion and manipulation. Washington was awarded almost $2 million dollars in damages "for the imprisonment that resulted from the fabrication of evidence against him and would become one of the compelling stories cited in the steady rise of death row exonerations across the country."

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Texas Psychologist Who Approved Defendants for Execution Barred from Future Work

The Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists recently reprimanded and fined Dr. George Denkowski, a psychologist who examined many death row inmates for intellectual disabilities, including two who were subsequently executed.  Despite using unscientific methods that have been sharply criticized by other psychologists, Dr. Denkowski found 16 inmates qualified for execution.  As part of a settlement, Dr. Denkowski agreed not to conduct intellectual disability evaluations in future criminal cases and to pay a fine of $5,500.  Marc J. Tassé, director of the Ohio State University Nisonger Center and an expert in developmental disabilities, said, "What Denkowski has been doing is a pretty radical departure. There’s absolutely no scientific basis to his procedure.”

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Colorado Governor Grants Unconditional Pardon Based on Innocence to Inmate Who Was Executed

On January 7, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted a full and unconditional posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy, who had been convicted and executed as an accomplice to a murder that occurred in 1936. The pardon came 72 years after Arridy’s execution and is the first such pardon in Colorado history.  A press release from the governor's office stated, "[A]n overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else."  The governor also pointed to Arridy's intellectual disabilities.  He had an IQ of 46 and functioned like a toddler.  The governor said, “Granting a posthumous pardon is an extraordinary remedy.  But the tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution on Jan. 6, 1939, merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution. Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”

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