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.)

(S. Goldstein, “High court denies appeal of mentally retarded man who helped rape, kill Arlington teen,” Dallas Morning News, December 6, 2010). See Intellectual Disability and U.S. Supreme Court.