Policy Issues

Intellectual Disability

It is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty upon individuals with intellectual disability. But poor legal representation and onerous evidentiary requirements still result in death sentences and executions of intellectually disabled defendants.

DPIC Podcast: Discussions With DPIC

DPIC Podcast: Discussions With DPIC

Intellectual Disability and the Death Penalty, With Law Professor John Blume


While stopping short of abolishing the death penalty, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken measures to limit its applicability so that it is used primarily in cases where the defendant had the most culpability. People with intellectual disability are not in that group. Occasionally, states, too, determined that the death penalty could be too harsh as applied to some defendants, and many passed laws exempting people with limited intellectual ability from the death penalty.

The mental health community has provided clear criteria for a finding of intellectual disability: significant limitation in intellectual ability and adaptive behavior, manifesting itself prior to the age of 18.

Although the question of a national ban on the use of capital punishment for those with intellectual disability was rejected by the Supreme Court in 1989 because so few states had taken action on their own, the issue re-emerged in 2002 with a new consensus. Thirty states had either ended the use of the death penalty entirely, or at least for those with intellectual disabilities. In Atkins v. Virginia, the Court held that the nation’s standards of decency had evolved to the point where no such executions should occur. It also concluded that there was little if any deterrent or retributive effect from executing such defendants.

At Issue

The Atkins case was a seminal moment in the history of the death penalty, not only because it spared the lives of a vulnerable class of defendants, but it also provided a blueprint for achieving other limitations on the practice, or even for eliminating it altogether. Even after the Court’s decision in 2002, some states continued to use arcane practices in the determination of intellectual disability, so further supervision has been required.

What DPIC Offers

DPIC traces the history of this important ruling, noting the legislative efforts in various states and the pivotal cases that brought this issue to the fore. It provides access to some of the research regarding how many defendants with intellectual disability have been removed from death row and how states apply this ruling at differing times during the process leading up to sentencing.

News & Developments


Apr 01, 2024

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Removes Henderson County Man from Death Row Citing Intellectual Disability

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…

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Mar 20, 2024

Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole Denies Clemency for Willie Pye, Scheduled for March 20 Execution, Amid Pending Secrecy and Equal Protection Lawsuits

On March 19, 2024, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole denied clemen­cy for Willie Pye (pic­tured), who is sched­uled to be exe­cut­ed on March 20, despite argu­ments that he has an intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty and is there­fore inel­i­gi­ble for exe­cu­tion, per Georgia state law and U.S. Supreme Court prece­dent. Convicted in 1996 for the 1993 mur­der of his ex-girl­friend, Alicia Yarbrough, Mr. Pye has spent the last 28 years on Georgia’s death row. Mr. Pye’s case has also gen­er­at­ed pub­lic con­cern due to…

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Mar 07, 2024

Georgia Sets March 20 Execution Date for Willie Pye Despite Strong Evidence of Intellectual Disability and Previous Finding of Ineffective Representation by Attorney with History of Racial Bias

The Georgia Attorney General has announced that Willie James Pye, who pre­vi­ous­ly had his death sen­tence reversed due to his attorney’s fail­ure to inves­ti­gate his back­ground, only to see the death sen­tence rein­stat­ed on appeal, is set to be exe­cut­ed on March 20. Mr. Pye’s court-appoint­ed tri­al attor­ney, Johnny Mostiler, has been accused of inef­fec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion or racial bias in at least four cas­es involv­ing Black defen­dants and report­ed­ly called one of his own clients a lit­tle n****r.”…

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Jan 23, 2024

United States Supreme Court Asked to Consider Another Case of Racially Biased Prosecutorial Jury Strikes

On December 18, 2023, attor­neys for Warren King, an intel­lec­tu­al­ly dis­abled black man sen­tenced to death in Georgia in 1998, filed a peti­tion for a writ of cer­tio­rari in the United States Supreme Court, ask­ing the Court to review the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ rul­ing deny­ing Mr. King relief. The peti­tion states that abun­dant evi­dence demon­strates that the pros­e­cu­tor dis­crim­i­nat­ed against Black and female jurors in select­ing [Mr.] King’s jury,” which vio­lates the Equal Protection…

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Aug 31, 2023

Court Ruling Makes Formerly Death-Sentenced Pervis Payne Eligible for Parole in Four Years

On August 30, 2023, the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals affirmed a low­er court’s rul­ing that for­mer­ly death-sen­tenced pris­on­er Pervis Payne can serve his two life sen­tences con­cur­rent­ly, mak­ing him eli­gi­ble to apply for parole in less than four years. Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan resen­tenced Mr. Payne in 2022 to two life sen­tences with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of parole after pros­e­cu­tors con­ced­ed that they could not dis­prove Mr. Payne’s claim that he is intel­lec­tu­al­ly disabled…

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