Atkins v. Virginia is the 2002 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of offenders with mental retardation was unconstitutional. The ruling left it to the individual states that did not already ban the practice to bring their state laws into conformance with the ruling. The Texas Legislature has not addressed the question, even though 10 years and five legislative sessions have passed.
That left the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to establish standards. They did so in 2004 in the ruling, Ex Parte Briseno, and the standards have faced widespread criticism ever since.
"Supreme Court asked again to review Texas' mental retardation test for convicted killers," is the editorial published in the Sunday Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The killing for which Elroy Chester was sentenced to death was as awful as they come, a clear violation of both law and morality.
What the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to review in his case is whether allowing the state of Texas to execute him would violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
On Oct. 26, the justices could decide whether to hear arguments on the petition from Chester, who has been on Death Row since 1998. His lawyers argue that he has an IQ less than 70, can't function independently, has been considered mentally retarded by the Texas prison system and received that diagnosis upon his arrest for capital murder.
On a larger scale, they argue that Texas assesses criminal defendants' mental retardation using factors that were "invented" by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, "are not rooted in the clinical standards, have no basis in the scientific literature, and do not reliably distinguish between those who are and are not mentally retarded."
There's no certainty that the Supreme Court wants to review the way Texas determines mental retardation for death penalty purposes. In August, the justices turned down a petition from Marvin Lee Wilson, whose lawyers argued that he was mentally retarded. He was executed Aug. 7.
Apparently, the Court of Criminal Appeals developed its criteria on the grounds that clinical factors were too subjective. However, the court's guidelines might be just as problematic.
Whether or not the Supreme Court accepts Chester's case, it's time for the Legislature to deal with yet another problematic area of Texas' death penalty.
Earlier coverage of the Texas standards to assess mental retardation begins at the link. Related posts are in the mental retardation index.
As I often point out, mental retardation is now generally referred to as a developmental or intellectual disability. Because it has a specific meaning with respect to capital cases, I continue to use the older term.