Missed Court Deadline Could Cost Mentally Retarded Man His Life

Though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit assumes that Texas death row inmate Marvin Lee Wilson is mentally retarded, it ruled that he cannot raise the issue in federal court because his defense attorney missed a filing deadline. The U.S. Supreme Court has banned the execution of those with mental retardation, but the Fifth Circuit stated that "however harsh the result may be" their hands are tied by deadlines established in the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

Wilson is on death row for the 1992 kidnapping and murder of a police informant. At a hearing in 2004, Wilson's lawyers presented evidence that their client's IQ had been measured at 61, which meets the "70 or below" IQ threshold often used to identify those with mental retardation. The defense attorneys also presented testimony from a psychologist and a childhood friend, both of whom testified about Wilson's limited abilities. Despite that evidence, Judge Larry Gist of the state district court in Beaumont, Texas, ruled that Wilson had failed to prove that he was mentally retarded. Gist's decision was later affirmed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. As Wilson's attorney prepared to present his client's case before the federal court, he said that he became tangled in the procedures and deadlines established in the 1996 federal law, an error that caused him to miss the federal filing deadline.

Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court similarly banned the execution of juvenile offenders, James Marcus of the Texas Defenser Service stated, "Executing someone who is categorically exempt from the death penalty would be new ground even for Texas. If Mr. Wilson had been 14 years old at the time of the crime but, in the eyes of the court, the issue was raised late, would it be O.K. for Texas to kill him? The question in this case is no different."

(New York Times, December 17, 2005).  See Mental Retardation.