Over at ThinkProgress, Ian Millhiser notes that Texas plans to execute Marvin Wilson the day after tomorrow. As the Grio’s Zerlina Maxwell reports, “Wilson was diagnosed with mental retardation by Dr. Donald Trahan, a court-appointed, board certified neuropsychologist with 22 years of clinical experience as a mental retardation specialist.” Texas, however, employs a more stringent standard. The case received national attention after Wilson’s lawyer missed a critical filing deadline which a federal appeals court had ruled prevented it from considering this issue. The case should receive national attention by raising a simpler question: What does Texas hope to accomplish through the ritual sacrifice of this profoundly limited man?
Dr. Trahan’s report provides the best background on the cognitive disability issues in play. Wilson has scored quite poorly on a variety of intelligence tests. Here’s the key passage, which underlays Trahan’s diagnosis:
It is my opinion that the WAIS -III is the most valid indicator of adult intelligence now in current usage. On the WAIS-III Mr. Wilson earned a Verbal I.Q. of 61, a Performance I.Q. of 68, and the Full Scale I.Q. of 61. This places him within the mildly retarded range of intellectual ability and below the 1st percentile.
People expect those living with developmental disabilities to exhibit obvious and stereotypical symptoms. Wilson doesn’t do that. He scores above the key IQ threshold of 70 on some tests. He falls below the threshold on others. He was married. He had the ability to drive, though he could not follow basic directions.
He also had the ability to commit armed robberies and other serious crimes. Wilson received the death penalty for a particularly stupid and vicious crime. He apparently killed a police informant named Jerry Williams under circumstances that virtually guaranteed that Wilson himself would be caught. There’s no sense in sugar-coating the brutality of the crime. We should do everything we can to comfort Mr. Williams’ grieving family.
I can understand, reading the 12-page report, why there is some disagreement about whether Marvin Wilson fits the strict legal standard of mental disability. I can’t understand why Texas is so hell-bent on killing this limited man.
Wilson can use a telephone, but he cannot read well enough to use a phonebook. His academic skills are at the 1st– and 2nd-grade level. Trahan’s report notes that Wilson “indicated uncertainty with regard to the spelling of his mother’s last name.” Despite his assignment to special education classes, he earned grades of “D” or “F” in every academic subject and was held back multiple times in school before dropping out. As a child, Wilson required “repeated instruction for doing even simple things, such as cutting the grass.” He could not master simple football plays or dress himself properly. He was unable to master basic job roles such as sweeping the floor or working the drying station at a car wash.
I would support the death penalty for specific terrible crimes if we had strong supporting evidence that such a policy would save lives. Yet as a recent National Academy of Sciences report indicates, the existing data provide no such evidence. The data are way too spotty to provide strong evidence either way.
Texas has executed 447 people between 1973 and 2009, accounting with some gusto for 37.6 percent of all American executions during that time. Over the same period, California executed ten people. New York didn’t execute anyone. The National Academy report included the below trends in homicide rates for America’s three largest states:
This unadjusted time-series doesn’t prove anything. It does invite the judgment that Texas hasn’t made dramatically greater progress despite the state’s dramatically-greater willingness to end human life. The state has killed teenage murderers, those later believed to be innocent, those who received terrible legal representation at trial, and murderers whose limited mental abilities should limit their legal and moral responsibility for tragic crimes. Please stop.