On March 27, 2024, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) resentenced death row prisoner Randall Mays to life in prison without the possibility of parole after an expert for the state conceded that the evidence presented by Mr. Mays’ attorneys indicates he is intellectually disabled, and thus ineligible for the death penalty. Originally sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of two Henderson County, Texas, sheriff’s deputies, Mr. Mays’ attorneys have long argued that he should be exempt from facing execution because of his disability. “The evidence of Randall’s intellectual disability is overwhelming,” said Benjamin Wolff, the director of the Texas Office of Capital and Forensic Writs. “He has a 63 IQ. His intellectual deficits have been seen, and observed by others, throughout his life from childhood to military service, and throughout his adulthood,” Mr. Wolff added.

During a hearing in December 2022, neuropsychological experts, hired by Mr. Mays’ attorneys, presented evidence from evaluations of Mr. Mays indicating that he met the criteria to be diagnosed with intellectual disability. An expert for the state of Texas said she “could not rebut that finding,” and neither did the Henderson County District Attorney. District Attorney Jenny Palmer expressed disappointment with the TCCA’s decision to take Mr. Mays off of death row. In the years following Mr. Mays’ death sentence, the state revised its intellectual disability criteria to more closely align with medically accepted diagnostic criteria and Ms. Palmer said her office did not agree with this change. “We stand ever faithful in our support of the Habelt and Ogburn families and our law enforcement family who must live with the effects of the horrible acts committed by Randall Mays on that day. While the justice they deserve, and Randall Mays has earned is now not an option, we gain small comfort in being able to say with confidence that Randall Mays will die in prison,” Ms. Palmer said in a statement.

In October 2019, a Henderson County judge withdrew a previous death warrant amid questions of Mr. Mays’ competency to be executed. Although competency is a different legal issue from intellectual disability, that action allowed time for consideration of Mr. Mays’ many legal claims, including his claim of intellectual disability. Prison personnel diagnosed Mr. Mays with schizophrenia and a forensic psychiatrist reported that Mr. Mays’ mental health condition was deteriorating, claiming he had become increasingly delusional and could not understand why he was facing an execution. In May 2020, the TCCA granted Mr. Mays a stay of execution, directing the Henderson County trial court to review his claims of ineligibility based on intellectual disability. In 2002, the United States Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia, that it is cruel and unusual to execute an individual with intellectual disability but granted individual states the power to define the criteria for intellectual disability. In February 2023, the Henderson County trial court recommended that relief be granted to Mr. Mays based on his intellectual disability claim, concluding that Mr. Mays is intellectually disabled based on “prevailing medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability.” Agreeing with the trial court, the TCCA ruled that “based upon the trial court’s findings and conclusions and our own review, we grant relief by reforming [Mr. Mays’] sentence of death to a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.”

Texas state Representative Toni Rose authored House Bill 727 in 2023 that would prevent those diagnosed with severe mental illness, including schizophrenia, from being sentenced to death. HB 727 intended to eliminate the death penalty for people with mental health issues that “impair [individuals’] capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions of exercise rational judgement.” This bill passed the state House in previous sessions, but ultimately failed in the Senate. Two states — Ohio and Kentucky — have codified similar legislation that precludes those with severe mental illness from being sentenced to death. In other death penalty states, including Texas, people with mental illness are only exempt from execution if they can show that they are legally insane, meaning they do not comprehend their crime or its consequences.


William Melhado, Texas crim­i­nal appeals court takes man off death row over intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty, The Texas Tribune, March 27, 2024; Zak Wellerman, East Texas man con­vict­ed of killing 2 Henderson County deputies gets tak­en off death row, CBS19, March 292024.

See the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rul­ing, here.