Eligible to Die

Last night, the state of Texas executed 57 year-old Robert Ladd, who was convicted of beating a woman to death with a hammer in 1996. Ladd’s IQ was 67, which is below the threshold for mental impairment generally recognized by courts, as well as the American Psychological Association.

48 hours prior to Ladd’s death, the state of Georgia executed 54 year-old Warren Hill, who was convicted of murdering another inmate. Hill had an IQ of 70.

States are permitted their own standards as to what constitutes being mentally “fit” to be executed, although the Supreme Court has intervened on the issue of intellectual ability on a number of occasions. In rulings in both 2002 and 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of “mentally retarded” individuals was unconstitutional, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment. In typically vague terms, it also dictated that states had an obligation to conform to medical standards and definitions of impairment. Yet both Hill and Ladd – who had been found by numerous medical experts to be mentally impaired – were executed, after a succession of appeals and public outrage in both cases. Texas relies heavily upon the 2004 court decision Ex Parte Briseno, which gave wide power to judges – not medical experts – in considering a “variety of factors” when determining an individual’s intellectual ability, or lack thereof. In the decision, an appeals judge refers to Lennie, the bumbling, accidental-murderer out of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” in reference to what a typical Texan would agree constituted an individual with a prohibitive intellectual disability. Yes: a fictitious Steinbeck novella character is, for Texas, a rigorous medical standard of impairment.

The validity of IQ tests is an issue in its own right. They are approximations, not finite definitions of intellectual capacity or functioning. Yet despite this, the state of Georgia mandates that a defendant prove their intellectual disability “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order to be spared from execution. That standard demands a degree of objectivity and decisiveness that is just not within the realm of possibility when dealing with something as complex as the functioning of the human mind.

The executions of two mentally impaired Americans in one week is incredibly sobering. Are the people of Texas and Georgia safer tonight? More vindicated? Or are they — along with the rest of us — in the midst of a complete systemic failure to honor the protections (supposedly) given to the mentally impaired by the US constitution?


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