Death Watch: Intellectually Disabled or Mentally Ill?

Three cases raise the question

The Court of Criminal Appeals granted its first stay of execution of the year, and now Smith County man Clifton Williams will face a new hearing instead of lethal injection, which was scheduled for June 21. Williams was sentenced to death in 2006 for killing a 93-year-old woman in a home robbery gone wrong. He's spent the last decade fighting his sentence to little reward, but on May 23, his attorneys filed an appeal contending Williams is "intellectually disabled" and therefore not subject to execution.

Atkins v. Virginia, a 2002 Supreme Court case, determined that executing people with intellectual disabilities qualifies as cruel punishment and violates the Eighth Amendment, but the CCA decision on Williams is the result of a more recent Supreme Court ruling on Texas death row inmate Bobby Moore, who SCOTUS concluded was sentenced in part on outdated medical research on intellectual functioning. Indeed, Texas had been using material from 1992, as well as guidelines based in part on Lennie from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men – factors that advanced "lay stereotypes" and made Texas an "outlier" in comparison to other states' handling of similar cases.

Williams now awaits examination. His Atkins hearing won't take place until that occurs. He has a hearing in Smith County District Court on June 21, to appoint substitute counsel.

Meanwhile, Moore's case appears to be headed down a different path. On June 6, the CCA upheld its ruling that he is competent enough for execution, and agreed to adopt current medical standards going forward (the same ones that moved the needle the other way in Williams' case), but the judges believe even under the new framework, Moore "failed to demonstrate adaptive deficits sufficient to support a diagnosis of intellectual disability."

And a similar conversation continued last week in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Andre Thomas was granted, in part, a certificate of appealability to file a brief and have his recently denied appeal reviewed. In 2005, Thomas was sentenced for killing his ex-wife, her baby, and their young son. He spent the months leading up to the murders claiming to hear voices from God and cutting himself, and in the course of the murders cut out the hearts of the two children and stored the organs in his pocket, before trying to kill himself. Later, in jail, he gouged out his right eye. Unsurprisingly, three psychologists concluded Thomas suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Though his trial attorney argued he was too ill to be given the death penalty, an all-white jury disagreed. (Thomas is black; his ex-wife was white.) Three years later, he pulled out his other eye and ate it.

Unlike Williams and Moore, who used Atkins to further their appeals, Thomas is mentally ill – meaning he suffers from a disorder, as opposed to intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior limitations (i.e., intellectual disability). The 5th Circuit denied only one of Thomas' five COA issues: whether execution of the severely mentally ill violates the Eighth Amendment, stating "this issue is foreclosed under our precedent." Though the U.S. still allows mentally ill inmates to be executed, the 5th Circuit's approval might just force a Supreme Court decision.

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Death Watch, Clifton Williams, Bobby Moore, Andre Thomas

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