Lisa Falkenberg | The Houston Chronicle | 7 August 2012
At 54, Marvin Wilson can't use a telephone book. He reads and writes on a first- or second-grade level. Those who know the Southeast Texas man say he can't match socks, he doesn't understand what a bank account is for, he's been known to fasten his belt to the point of nearly cutting off his circulation. The day his son was born, one sister recalled, he reverted to the familiar habit of sucking his thumb.
His IQ, according to the most valid indicator of human intelligence, is 61, below the first percentile. This was one of many clinical tests and factors that led a neuropsychologist with decades of experience to diagnose Wilson with "mild mental retardation."
Nevertheless, at 6 p.m. Tuesday night, the state of Texas, in your name and mine, is scheduled to kill Marvin Wilson by lethal injection. The U.S. Supreme Court - citing the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment - banned the execution of the mentally retarded a decade ago.
But like other federal mandates, Texas has found a way around this one, too.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2002 decision in a case called Atkins, exempted all mentally ill offenders from execution, in part because those who struggle with impulse control, for example, are less culpable for their crimes. But also because mentally ill offenders may be especially vulnerable to wrongful convictions since they're less able to help attorneys build strong defenses.
Wilson is a textbook example. According to his attorneys' brief, Wilson was fingered as the lead shooter by a more sophisticated accomplice, and evidence of his "confession" in the murder of police informant Jerry Williams came from the accomplice's wife.
In Atkins, the high court held that the states, many of which had begun to ban executions of the mentally retarded on their own, had reached a national consensus that the practice was immoral.
Of course, certain conservative factions in Texas, as usual, fell somewhere outside those evolving standards of decency. The Supreme Court left it up to the states to design procedures to implement the ban, but the state with the most active death chamber took that as an invitation to redefine the ban itself.
In a 2004 opinion, Texas' highest court announced that, where executions were concerned, it didn't have to define "mental retardation" the same way as other states. It didn't even have to define it the same way it does for impaired Texas school children.
No, the fine jurists of Texas' Court of Criminal Appeals made up a new definition of "mentally retarded" especially for defendants in capital crimes. It wasn't based on science or the generally accepted definition of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. It was based on myths, stereotypes and even a fictional character: Lennie in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."
Forget the national consensus. The Texas court was concerned only with the Texas consensus, "the level and degree of mental retardation" that Texans would agree should be exempted from the death penalty.
"Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt," the court said. But someone else who didn't meet that stereotypical description and merely had a clinical diagnosis to prove his mental retardation? Well, that's a different story.
The court then set about redefining what it means to be mentally retarded in a capital case. The "Briseno factors" are a list of questions fact-finders should ask in criminal cases to determine whether a defendant is mentally retarded enough to be spared. The goal, of course, is to spare as few as possible.
The factors include such subjective and unscientific questions as whether a defendant can plan and lie. (My toddler is capable of both when there's a cookie within reach.) Another question asks whether family and friends in the defendant's life "think he was mentally retarded." Never mind that mental retardation can be genetic and family members themselves may be impaired. The seventh, and most problematic factor invites the fact-finder to look at how the crime was perpetrated, which introduces emotion into a process that should be solely based on reason.
Wilson's last hope
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has found the lower court's interpretation reasonable. TheTexas Legislature has failed to address the issue after Gov. Rick Perry vetoed an earlier ban on such executions passed by lawmakers.
Wilson's last hope is for the U.S. Supreme Court to step in on Tuesday and grant a stay of execution so that the high court can consider his case along with another similar Texas case pending before it.
Once again we need the nation's highest court to save us from ourselves. To remind us of our humanity. To impose on us the cruel confines of decency.