On Tuesday, there will be another pointless execution

I can understand why there is some disagreement about whether convicted murderer Marvin Wilson fits the strict legal standard of mental disability. I can’t understand why Texas is so hell-bent on killing this obviously limited man

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

17 thoughts on “On Tuesday, there will be another pointless execution”

  1. What does Texas hope to accomplish through the ritual sacrifice of this profoundly limited man? Nothing really but their image! I suppose Governor Perry could stop it, but bloodly unlikely; he wouldn’t want to appear soft. I rembember even…

    Bill Clinton flew home to Arkansas, in mid campaign in 1992, to have someone even more retarded than Marvin Wilson, executed as scheduled. Some pundits considered it a turning point in that race, hardening a soft public image. Rickey Rae Rector (the executee) seemed incapable of understanding his pending death sentence. For his last meal, he left the pecan pie on the side of the tray, telling the guards who came to take him to the execution chamber that he was saving it “for later”.

    1. What is your point? If Clinton did it, it must be okay? If Clinton did it, then Perry can do it too?

      I consider that act of Clinton’s a moral lapse.

      1. Dennis, just providing American political context. We already expect gun toting Republican governors like Perry to be eager to apply capital punishment, even to those who really don’t know the consequences. I was dissapointed Obama never said anything about Troy Davis’s execution last September in Georgia. Yes, I know it was decided by state courts, but Obama had said earlierin the year, to the NACCP, “The causes that you champion are the ones that drew me to public office in the first place, and they are the ones that sustain me every day in this office.”

        1. What should Obama have said? Write any conceivable statement about it. Once you’ve written it, reinterpret it through a GOTP lens. What does the statement gain for anyone?

          1. He could have signed the International Amnesty petition, and/or made a personal appeal to the Georgia governor as he did in the Humberto Leal case, who was far more ‘guilty’ than Davis,(who was probably innocent) when Obama made a last minute appeal to Governor Perry to suspend the execution of Leal, because it would harm “US interests abroad.” He was a Mexican.

          2. Foreign policy matters are in the purview of the President’s official duties. He had to make the appeal to Rick Perry, although it was a hopeless situation (and Calderon and the Mexican government were well-aware of that). But sometimes you have to go through the motions.

            Everything a President does is political, and that would include signing an Amnesty International petition. You know as well as I do it would be read by the GOTP as an unwarranted intervention in internal state affairs. And in the end, it would have been going through the motions with no benefit to anyone but the rabid right.

      2. That wasn’t a moral lapse on Clinton’s part. That was Clinton expressing his consistent moral view.

        If you think that’s a positive comment about Clinton, think again.

    2. One could argue that the cases are distinguishable because Rector only lost his mental faculties as a result of shooting himself in the temple, after already having killed two people. So at the time his crimes were committed, he was perfectly culpable.

  2. Texas gets to enjoy an episode of barbaric self-gratificatory judicial murder yet again. That’s all they get out of it, but it seems to satisfy the Christian community down there.

  3. I don’t favor the death penalty (in theory, with an ideal justice system, for a limited range of terrible crimes, yes, in any foreseeable world that we might live in, no). But given that we have the death penalty, I don’t quite see why being “limited” (which I take to mean, “profoundly stupid”) should get a person who has committed a brutal crime a lesser punishment. Stupidity isn’t a defense, like insanity. Are you arguing that it should be?

    1. Yes, actually the question is whether the Mr. Wilson had sufficient capacity to be convicted of murder at all. Basic criminal convictions in the United States (with a few exceptions, murder not among them) require not only proof that the defendant commited the act but that they did so with Mens Rae or criminal intent. This creates a problem where you are dealing with people who have diminished mental capacities. It becomes a key question for the court if the accused has the capacity to understand the crime they’ve committed. In this case the problem is that the court never even considered Mr. Wilson’s capacity for mens rae and so leaves the question open as to his legal guilt.

    2. Gabriel poses the right question, at least from a narrow lawyer’s point of view. Mental capacity defenses (insanity and stupidity) are a damned difficult problem. One could argue that any murderer must be suffering from diminished mental capacity. It’s a good argument, but it proves way too much. So where to draw the line?

      There is one sharp line for insanity: the M’Naughten test: i.e., the accused doesn’t know that their act is murder. It may be way too narrow (I think it is), but is the only thing that doesn’t disintegrate into a smell test. I don’t know if there is anything similar for stupidity, although the common law uses an age cutoff for criminality, which might be a proxy for stupidity.

      Based on Harold’s post, Marvin Wilson seems to pass the M’Naughten test: a six-year old knows from violence. He may also pass an IQ-based version of the age cutoff test. (IIRC, the common-law age was about 7 or so!) In other words, common-law reasoning supports the Texas approach. So Marvin Wilson’s lawyers probably presented a mens rea test, and the jury didn’t buy it. (Although maybe you can’t presume much of a Texas death penalty lawyer.)

      All of which goes to show, I suppose, that the law is an ass. But the reasoning is not incomprehensible.

    1. IQ tests are bull. They are based on mathematical models that admit an uncountable number of solutions, all with equal mathematical validity. The particular solution chosen has much the flavor of a “just-so” story.

      That said, the tests are scored in a way that makes them most precise (in the sense of score variance) near the mean, with increasing uncertainty towards both extremes. Because the models are so ill-defined I don’t believe it is possible to discuss test accuracy or mean squared error (the total of score variance and the squared bias) in any meaningful way.

      When you say the tests are biased, you are saying that we observe differences in the mean scores for different population groups. One can look at the test questions and observe that there are cultural biases involved. The SAT-I (which is an intelligence test), for example at one time had an analogy question involving the word regatta. People who grew up in the upper- and middle-classes on the coasts in that era were likely exposed to yacht races. People who grew up in the desert southwest of that era might easily not have been exposed to that word in either their reading or their common lives. But people who grew up in the desert southwest would almost certainly know the word charreada, while it’s highly unlikely anyone from the east coast would be aware of that term. That’s true even if the person in question had studied Spanish in school. (FWIW, a charreada is rodeo-like sport popular in Mexico and parts of the southwest.)

      Why should a fairly obscure term like regatta be okay but an equally obscure term like charreada not be okay? Well, the test is made up by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, NJ. All IQ tests have cultural assumptions built into them, and they become increasingly questionable as you remove them from their cultural roots.

      Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man has a very good run down of the models used to “measure” IQ and the misuse of the models and the tests behind them in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

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