Death Watch: A Hard Life, A Disabled Man, A Death Sentence

Ibarra's lawyer cites IQ test, family history in last-ditch appeal for death row case

Russell Hunt has been trying to get evidence of Ramiro Ibarra's terrible childhood before a jury for years, in hopes of overturning his death sentence. Now, with a week to go before Ibarra's execution date of March 4, Hunt has gained traction with different appeals – that Ibarra is intellectually disabled, and that his conviction was tainted by three different types of forensic "junk science" that would never stand up in court today. On Feb. 24 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to stay Ibarra's execution to consider two of those junk-science claims: questionable eyewitness identifications, and outdated DNA techniques now known to yield unreliable results.

Ibarra was found guilty in 1996 of raping and murdering his niece. Hunt took his case a decade later and advanced a mitigation defense, arguing that Ibarra's original attorneys had failed to give jurors an accurate picture of his childhood during the sentencing phase of the trial. Such testimony sometimes persuades juries to give those convicted of capital murder life without parole instead of a death sentence. For Ibarra's defense, his attorneys brought his sister and wife to the stand. They testified merely that he'd grown up poor in Mexico, that his father had "worked on the land," and that later he'd supported his family.

The evidence unearthed by Hunt tells a more harrowing story. He found that Ibarra was one of 13 children born into extreme poverty. They often went days without food. The family moved frequently, living together in one room with no electricity, no furniture, and few possessions. The children worked from the age of 6. Because of their malnourishment and exposure, they were frequently sick. Ibarra witnessed one sibling's death and saw other family members close to death.

Ibarra's father savagely beat and demeaned his wife and children. "He beat his children with whatever was around: a belt, a rubber strap, rope, wooden sticks or clubs, a cable, a whip for animals," Hunt wrote in one of his court filings. "He left physical scars, rope burns, and bruises on Ramiro and the other children."

Hunt's efforts to get this information before a jury have bounced around courts since at least 2010. Judges have dismissed the testimony in different ways. The 5th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Appeals has ruled, for example, that it can't consider the evidence since Ibarra's original lawyers never presented it in state court, although it's ruled those lawyers provided adequate counsel to Ibarra. Hunt's appeal with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in addition to the forensics claims, cites Ibarra's score of 65 on an IQ test and an analysis by two neuropsychologists. As well, Hunt offers testimony from Ibarra's family and teachers stating that Ibarra could not speak intelligibly until the age of 8 (and is still difficult to understand); that he had difficulty cleaning and caring for himself; that he was slow and did poorly at school; that he made no friends, was defenseless, and cried easily; and that he suffered from anxiety and hopelessness.

The CCA recently kicked the cases of Blaine Milam and Edward Busby back to their trial courts to decide if they're intellectually disabled, and it's possible the state's highest criminal court will do the same for Ibarra. If they don't, he'll become the first person executed by Texas in 2021.

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