Archive | intellectual disabilities

27 February 2013 ~ Comments Off

Brazos County Jury Rejects Death Penalty for Stanley Robertson

This afternoon, after more than 21 hours of deliberation, a Brazos County jury determined that Stanley Wayne Robertson should spend the rest of his life in prison for the 2010 murder of Annie Mae Toliver.  The District Attorney’s office had sought the death penalty for Robertson, but the jury decided that there was mitigating evidence in his case that warranted a life sentence.  During the punishment phase of his trial, Robertson’s attorneys presented evidence of his impoverished childhood, as well as expert testimony as to his intellectual disabilities.

According to the Bryan-College Station Eagle (“Robertson case enters third day of sentencing deliberations,” February 27, 2013), jurors indicated on Tuesday afternoon that they were deadlocked on the question of whether Robertson is mentally disabled.   The jury was sequestered for two nights before reaching a final decision that results in a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Read more about the jury deliberations in The Eagle.

Over the last five years, death-qualified juries have rejected the death penalty in more than 20 capital murder trials.  There were four such jury rejections in 2012.  This is the first case this year in which a capital jury has rejected the death penalty; there have been no new death sentences imposed to date in 2012.

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12 December 2012 ~ Comments Off

TCADP Report: Use of Death Penalty Geographically Isolated, Arbitrarily Imposed in Texas

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

CONTACT: Kristin Houlé, Executive Director
512-441-1808 (office); 512-552-5948 (cell)

Use of Death Penalty Geographically Isolated, Arbitrarily Imposed in Texas,
According to New Report by TCADP

Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex led state in pursuit of the death penalty in 2012

(Austin, Texas) — More than half of all new death sentences were imposed in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex this year, while no new death sentences were imposed in Harris County for the third time in five years, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s (TCADP) new report, Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2012: The Year in Review.

New death sentences in Texas have declined more than 75% since 2002 and remain near historic low levels in 2012.  To date this year, juries have condemned nine new individuals to death in Texas, a slight increase over 2011 and 2010, when new death sentences fell to their lowest number since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Texas’ revised death penalty statute in 1976.  The verdict in a capital murder trial in Brazos County, in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, has been delayed indefinitely pending a legal dispute over jury instructions.

Tarrant and Dallas Counties each accounted for two new death sentences and Johnson County accounted for one.  Dallas County now leads the state in new death sentences since 2008, accounting for nearly 20% of sentences imposed in the last five years.  Dallas County also led the state in executions, accounting for 5 of the 15 executions carried out this year.

“While most of Texas is moving away from the death penalty, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex was a major outlier both in new death sentences and executions this year,” said Kristin Houlé, Executive Director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.  “2012 exemplified the arbitrariness that pervades the death penalty system in Texas.  Not only does it remain geographically isolated to just a few jurisdictions statewide, but it continues to be applied in a haphazard and unfair way, particularly when it comes to individuals with intellectual disabilities or severe mental illness and people of color.”

Seven of the new death row inmates in 2012 are African-American, one is Hispanic, and one is a white female.  Over the last five years, nearly 75% of death sentences in Texas have been imposed on people of color – 46% African-American and 28% Hispanic.  In Dallas County, this pattern is even more pronounced – of the eight men sentenced to death there since 2008, five are African-American and two are Hispanic.

Of the 15 men executed in Texas this year, seven were African-American, four were Hispanic, and four were white.

“Although Texas is using the death penalty less, the state still uses it disproportionately on people of color,” said Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service.  “This is a recurring problem and Texas’ failure to fix it demonstrates how broken its capital punishment system is.”

Troubling questions also persist regarding the arbitrary determination of who receives the ultimate punishment.  Cases involving individuals with comparable backgrounds or who presented similar legal arguments received vastly different treatment by the criminal justice system this year.

As one example of this arbitrariness, several death row inmates with diagnosed severe mental illnesses were scheduled for execution this year.  The executions of Steven Staley and Marcus Druery were halted pending unresolved issues related to their mental competency, while the execution of Jonathan Green, who reportedly suffered from schizophrenia, proceeded on October 10, 2012 after significant legal wrangling.

This disparate treatment was also evident in terms of issues related to intellectual disabilities.

Two inmates with recognized intellectual disabilities received reduced sentences and were removed from death row this year: Roosevelt Smith, convicted in 2007, and Anthony Pierce, who spent more than three decades on death row.  On the other hand, Marvin Wilson was executed on August 7, 2012 despite being diagnosed with an IQ of 61, well below the threshold of 70 for mental impairment.  His case created an international uproar and starkly illustrated the woefully inadequate and unscientific standards used by the State of Texas to determine which defendants with intellectual disabilities are protected from execution.

Other highlights of Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2012: The Year in Review:

  • The State of Texas accounted for more than a third of U.S. executions this year, a smaller percentage than in the past but nearly three times as many as any other state.  Texas has executed a total of 492 people since 1982 – 253 executions have occurred during the administration of Texas Governor Rick Perry (2001 – present), more than any other governor in U.S. history.
  • Six inmates scheduled for execution in 2012 received reprieves.  In addition, three execution dates were withdrawn.
  • Death-qualified juries rejected the death penalty in the sentencing phase in four trials this year and instead opted for life in prison without the possibility of parole.  In all four cases, the jury determined that the defendant did not pose a future danger.  Over the last five years, death-qualified juries have rejected the death penalty in at least 20 capital murder trials.
  • According to research by TCADP, the Texas death row population stands at its lowest level since 1989.  As of November 16, 2012, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice counted 289 death row inmates, which includes 10 women.

“Attitudes toward the death penalty are shifting as public confidence in the ultimate punishment continues to erode,” said Houlé.  “As we approach the start of the 83rd Texas Legislature, TCADP urges concerned citizens and elected officials to confront the realities of this irreversible punishment and reconsider the efficacy and cost of the death penalty as a means of achieving justice.”

TCADP is a statewide, grassroots advocacy organization based in Austin.

Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2012: The Year in Review is available online at  Contact report author Kristin Houlé at to receive a copy directly via email.  See the report for tables illustrating Texas’ highest-use counties from 2008-2012, the race of defendants sentenced to death in the last five years, and additional graphs depicting recent trends.

See for a map of new death sentences by county from 2008 to 2012.

See for a map of death sentences by county from 1976 to 2012.


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07 August 2012 ~ 2 Comments

U.S. Supreme Court Allows Execution of Marvin Wilson‏

The State of Texas executed Marvin Wilson this evening, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to grant him a stay based on evidence of his intellectual disabilities.  Here’s a statement from his attorney:

Statement from Attorney for Marvin Wilson in Response to the Denial of a Stay of Execution by the U.S. Supreme Court

“We are gravely disappointed and profoundly saddened that the United States Supreme Court has refused to intervene to prevent tonight’s scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson, who has an I.Q. of 61, placing him below the first percentile of human intelligence. Ten years ago, this Court categorically barred states from executing people with mental retardation. Yet, tonight Texas will end the life of a man who was diagnosed with mental retardation by a court-appointed, board certified specialist.

“It is outrageous that the state of Texas continues to utilize unscientific guidelines, called the Briseño factors, to determine which citizens with intellectual disability are exempt from execution. The Briseño 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, including the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. 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.”

-Lee Kovarsky, Attorney for Marvin Wilson

August 7, 2012


Marvin Wilson, 54, was sentenced to death for killing a police informant, Jerry Williams, in Beaumont two decades ago. His attorneys pointed to a psychological test that pegged his IQ at 61, below the threshold of 70 that would suggest he is mentally impaired. Lower courts agreed with state attorneys who questioned the test’s validity, however.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Wilson’s request for a stay of execution less than two hours before his scheduled 6 p.m. lethal injection.

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07 August 2012 ~ 1 Comment

Family of author John Steinbeck “deeply troubled” by scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson

Texas is scheduled to execute Marvin Wilson later today for the 1992 murder of Jerry Robert Williams in Beaumont. Although Wilson has an I.Q. of 61, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded, Wilson faces lethal injection because the state of Texas uses unscientific guidelines to determine which defendants with intellectual disability are protected from execution. These guidelines, called “the Briseño factors,” after the decision that announced them, rely on stereotypes about mental retardation to exclude all but the most severely incapacitated from their constitutional protection against execution.


In formulating the “the Briseño factors,” a Texas court wrote that “most Texas citizens would agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt from execution. But does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?”


John Steinbeck’s son has released the following statement about the Marvin Wilson case and the Briseño decision, which cites his father’s work:


“On behalf of the family of John Steinbeck, I am deeply troubled by today’s scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson, a Texas man with an I.Q. of 61. Prior to reading about Mr. Wilson’s case, I had no idea that the great state of Texas would use a fictional character that my father created to make a point about human loyalty and dedication, i.e, Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men, as a benchmark to identify whether defendants with intellectual disability should live or die. My father was a highly gifted writer who won the Nobel prize for his ability to create art about the depth of the human experience and condition. His work was certainly not meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability. I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous, and profoundly tragic. I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way.”


- Thomas Steinbeck


Marvin Wilson’s scheduled execution has been condemned by numerous prominent groups and organizations, including the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Texas Senator Rodney Ellis, Texas Representative Lon Burnam, and others. The New York Times and the Dallas Morning News have editorialized that the execution must be stopped.


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06 August 2012 ~ Comments Off

Disabilities Advocate, State Legislator Join Calls to Stop the Execution of Marvin Wilson

Over the weekend, a number of media outlets featured calls to stop the execution of Marvin Wilson.  The State of Texas is scheduled to execute Wilson on Tuesday, August 7, for the 1992 murder of Jerry Robert Williams in Beaumont.  Advocates contend that his execution should be prohibited by the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision Atkins v. Virginia, which categorically barred the death penalty for persons with mental retardation (now referred to as intellectual disabilities) but left the determination of these disabilities to each state.  The Texas Legislature still has not amended the state’s death penalty statute to comply with Atkins.  Instead, Texas uses a set of unscientific guidelines, called “the Briseño factors,” which are not medically or clinically recognized diagnostic tools for identifying intellectual disability and were developed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals based on stereotypes.

An opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle from Margaret A. Nygren, the executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (“Texas should not execute intellectually disabled man,” August 3, 2012), states that:

Intellectual disability is a medical condition and should be assessed by a specialist. Unfortunately for its citizens, Texas evaluates defendants for intellectual disability using factors that are not used by medical professionals, and are based on false stereotypes that exclude all but the most severely incapacitated. Evaluating individuals using these factors, called the Briseño factors, is fundamentally incompatible with the scientific and clinical understanding of intellectual disability.

When Wilson came before the state of Texas to prove his intellectual disability and seek his constitutional protection from execution, the state did not present any evidence against him having an intellectual disability. The state did not provide any expert witnesses (or witnesses of any kind) to refute the court-appointed, board-certified expert’s diagnosis of mild mental retardation. However, because Texas unfairly uses unscientific factors to cherry-pick which people with intellectual disability will be exempt from execution, Wilson was essentially deemed “not disabled enough” to receive the constitutional protection he is entitled to because of his medical condition.


Nygren goes on to state that:

The Supreme Court has affirmed this constitutional protection as the law of the land, in every state, and for every individual with an intellectual disability. Texas should respect the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities and commute Wilson’s sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole.

Read the full op-ed in the Chronicle.

An editorial by the New York Times calls on the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, stating that “The court should accept Mr. Wilson’s case for review and end Texas’s illegal defiance of its explicit holding that the death penalty for the mentally retarded is unconstitutional.” (“Mentally Retarded and on Death Row,” August 4, 2012)

State Senator Rodney Ellis, from Houston, also has weighed in on this case, asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stay Wilson’s execution. In a press release, he states that “Mr. Wilson’s case is a clear example of how Texas law continues to violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. … Before we administer the ultimate penalty we must utilize standards to ensure we are in compliance with the Constitution of the United States.”   Read more in coverage from the Texas Tribune (“Advocates: Don’t Execute Mentally Retarded Man,” August 3, 2012).

A good overview of the case is available from the Huffington Post (“Marvin Wilson, Texas Man With 61 IQ, To Be Executed In Days,” August 3, 2012).

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12 July 2012 ~ Comments Off

More on the July 18 Scheduled Execution of Yokamon Hearn

A new article by Andrew Cohen that appears in The Atlantic (“A Day in the Life of the Death Penalty: July 18, 2012,” July 12, 2012) draws parallels between two executions scheduled to take place next Wednesday – one here in Texas and one in Georgia.  Here’s an excerpt:

Next Wednesday, July 18, reckons to be another banner day in the history of capital punishment in America. Sometime between 6 p.m. and midnight, the state of Texas is scheduled to execute a convicted murderer named Yokamon Hearn, a man who has, since early childhood, shown clear and consistent evidence of brain damage. And at 7 p.m., the state of Georgia plans to execute a convicted murderer named Warren Hill, who years ago was deemed by a veteran state judge to be mentally retarded.
These executions will take place, absent extraordinary Supreme Court or gubernatorial intervention, because federal and state judges at lower levels of our nation’s justice system have perversely interpreted recent United States Supreme Court decisions.  Whereas the Justices have tried in the past few years to give men like Hearn and Hill more access to meaningful appellate review, judicial obstructionists down below have refused to apply either the letter or the spirit of the new procedural rules.

The article goes on to provide background  information about Yokamon Hearn’s trial, the basis of his appeals, and his clemency petition to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.  It also notes that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, has interpreted the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision Martinez v. Ryan in the narrowest way possible.  Cohen writes that “Even though the justices in Washington had created an exception to ‘protect prisoners with a potentially legitimate claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel,’ the 5th Circuit said that Texas’ appellate procedures vitiated the need for such an exception.”

Read the full article.

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22 June 2011 ~ 1 Comment

State of Texas Executes Milton Mathis

Last night, the State of Texas executed Milton Mathis for the 1998 murders of Travis Brown and Daniel Hibbard in Fort Bend County.  He was 19 years old at the time of the crime.  This was the sixth execution to take place in Texas this year, out of 23 nationwide.

Mathis was executed despite compelling evidence of his mental retardation, including IQ tests on which he scored as low as 62, well below the threshold for intellectual disabilities in most states.  In an op-ed that appeared in the Dallas Morning News (“Justice demands a review in Texas death penalty case,” June 17, 2011), former Texas Governor Mark White called for a federal review of the merits of his claim of mental retardation, noting that:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled almost a decade ago that the execution of those with mental retardation is unconstitutional. Unfortunately for Mathis, this ruling came weeks after his capital conviction was finalized. So Mathis has had to navigate the confusing labyrinth of state and federal law that govern legal claims after convictions in order to present the evidence of his mental retardation to a court. …

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene, as did the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.  Read more from the Houston Chronicle and the Huffington Post.


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17 June 2011 ~ Comments Off

Former Governor Mark White Calls for Review for Milton Mathis

In an op-ed appearing today in the Dallas Morning News (“Justice demands a review in Texas death penalty case,” June 17, 2011), former Texas Governor Mark White calls for a federal review in the case of Milton Mathis, who is scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas next Tuesday, June 21, 2011, unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes.   According to IQ tests, his childhood school records, and other evidence of adaptive deficits, Mathis clearly meets the criteria for mental retardation.  Yet as Governor White explains, his appeals have been denied because of timelines, not the merits of his claims.

Here is a long excerpt from the op-ed (the full text is available to Morning News subscribers only):

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled almost a decade ago that the execution of those with mental retardation is unconstitutional. Unfortunately for Mathis, this ruling came weeks after his capital conviction was finalized. So Mathis has had to navigate the confusing labyrinth of state and federal law that govern legal claims after convictions in order to present the evidence of his mental retardation to a court.

When Mathis was finally able to present the evidence of his mental retardation to a state court judge, the judge agreed with the prosecution’s claim that the “gold standard” IQ test in which Mathis scored a 64 was subjective and should be ignored, signing off on the prosecution’s assertion that Mathis was not mentally retarded. Furthermore, because of the complex interaction of state and federal procedure, a federal judge mistakenly cut off Mathis’ chance to have evidence of his mental retardation heard in federal court, despite the fact that he has a right to such review.

The result of these procedural mistakes and misapplications of the law is that Mathis could be unconstitutionally executed without the chance he deserves to present evidence of his mental retardation in federal court.

A petition will be filed with the U.S. Supreme Court requesting that they order a hearing in federal court to consider the evidence that Mathis has mental retardation. The Supreme Court should grant the petition so that this evidence can be fully considered.

If the court refuses to order an examination of the evidence, justice can still be done if Gov. Rick Perry stays the execution so that his office can make an independent inquiry into the procedures and facts surrounding Mathis’ death sentence. The governor of Texas is authorized by law to take action to prevent precisely this sort of injustice. Perry has correctly refused to grant clemency in cases where all the evidence has been reviewed fully and fairly. But this is not such a case. The review is not complete, and the evidence has not been fully heard.

The fairness of Texas’ death penalty depends on a complete review of the evidence in this case.

Read an editorial from the Houston Chronicle about this case.


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