Inside Story Americas
The law of executions
Do US states trump Supreme Court rulings and set dangerous precedents when they execute the mentally challenged?
Last Modified: 09 Aug 2012 11:01

On Tuesday, the US state of Texas executed an intellectually disabled man. Yet a decade ago the country's Supreme Court outlawed the execution of those they termed 'mentally retarded'.

In this episode we examine how the justice system serves those with mental disabilities.

"What you see here is a strategy to put lay people - judges and typical members of society, the jury - in a position of making clinical decisions and a clinical assessment based on their brief observations of someone in a court setting. There is absolutely no scientific basis for these [Briseno factors]."

- Margaret Nygren, of the American Association on Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities

Marvin Wilson, 54, was sentenced to death for killing a police informant two decades ago. His lawyers had appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that he should be spared the death penalty due to his low IQ of 61. That is below the generally accepted minimum competency standard of 70.

A spokesman for the state of Texas described Wilson's last moments:

"He looked over and acknowledged the victim's family. He then looked at his family and said, 'Son, get your life right with Christ. Also, your mother, give your mum a hug for me and tell her that I love her. Y'all understand I came in here a sinner and I'm leaving a saint. Take me home, Jesus, take me home.' He then went on to look at his family and said, 'I love you all, and I'm ready.'"

Back in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of the intellectually disabled constituted cruel and unusual punishment. But this week the justices denied Wilson's appeal and he was put to death by lethal injection. According to the Texas definition, Wilson did not suffer from mental disability.

Wilson was the 25th person to be executed in the US this year, and the seventh in Texas. Amnesty International has called the decision "highly disturbing" and several other rights groups criticised the sentence.

In executing people of lower intelligence, what sort of precedent does this case set?

To discuss this Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, speaks to: Jim Ellis, a lawyer who argued the 2002 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that executing intellectually disabled individuals is cruel and unusual punishment; Laura Moye, the Death Penalty Abolition Campaign director at Amnesty International USA; and Margaret Nygren, the executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

"It is outrageous that the state of Texas continues to utilise unscientific guidelines, called the Briseno factors, to determine which citizens with intellectual disability are exempt from execution. The Briseno factors are not scientific tools, they are the decayed remainder of an uninformed stereotype that has been widely discredited by the nation's leading groups on intellectual disability ....That neither the courts nor state officials have stopped this execution is not only a shocking failure of a once-promising constitutional commitment, it is also a reminder that, as a society, we haven't come quite that far in understanding how so many of those around us live with intellectual disabilities."

Part of the statement by Lee Kovarsky, Wilson's attorney, condemning the Supreme Court's refusal to intervene in his client's case


  • Virginia executed Teresa Lewis in 2010 despite her low IQ
  • Warren hill was executed by Georgia despite having an IQ of only 70
  • Georgia executed Jerome holiday in 1987 despite his IQ of just 49
  • Mental disability is defined as below average intellectual functioning
  • Experts say an IQ of less than 70 indicates intellectual disability
  • Experts say intellectually disabled are more likely to be coerced
  • Intellectually disabled people are often overwhelmed by police presence


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