Texas Set to Execute Death Row Inmate Diagnosed as ‘Mentally Retarded’
A death row prisoner who has been medically diagnosed as “mentally retarded” and therefore exempt from execution is set to die on Tuesday in Texas, a state that rejects scientific consensus and instead applies its own definition of learning difficulties based on a character in a John Steinbeck novel.
Barring a last minute intervention by the courts, Marvin Wilson, 54, will be put to death by lethal injection even though he has been subjected to scientifically-recognised tests that show him to be intellectually disabled - or “mentally retarded” as the US legal system still calls the condition.
In 2002, the US supreme court banned executions for all such prisoners under the Eighth Amendment of the constitution that prohibits excessive punishment. The 2002 ban, in Atkins v Virginia, is categorical: individuals with mental retardation cannot be put to death. The court allowed some discretion on the part of individual states to devise procedures for administering the injunction, but no right to ignore it.
Texas took that discretion to mean - wrongly in the view of many lawyers and mental health experts - that it could set its own definition of retardation.
Instead of a clinical or scientific approach, based on widely recognized tests set out by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Texas decided to go its own way.
It came up with a set of seven criteria, known as “Briseno factors” after the decision that announced them, to determine which prisoners with learning difficulties should live and which should die.
The determinants were posited around the character Lennie Small in Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men.