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.
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).