How the State of Texas blew off a Supreme Court decision so it could execute a mentally retarded man.
At 6:26 p.m local time last night, an hour or so after the last appeal was denied, Texas executed a mentally retarded black man named Marvin Wilson, a man who could not handle money or navigate a phone book, a man who sucked his thumb and could not always tell the difference between left and right, a man who, as a child, could not match his socks, tie his shoes or button his clothes, a 54-year-old man with an IQ of 61* which, his attorneys were quick to point out, is “below the first percentile of human intelligence.”
Texas accomplished this unrepentant bit of business despite a 2002 decision of the United States Supreme Court styled Atkins v. Virginia, a ruling which many of us at the time believed meant the end of executions for men, like Wilson, whose simple minds could not fathom the concept of the act. Boy, were we wrong. Today, Atkins seems as dead as Wilson, another example of the misdirection today’s justices have perfected, another episode where the practical remedy doesn’t remotely match the heralded right.
Without dissent or comment, the Supreme Court just rejected a last-minute appeal by Wilson’s lawyers on Tuesday, as if it were somehow clear, to anyone in the world, why the precedent created by the Atkins case wasn’t somehow relevant to the Wilson case. After all, wasn’t the defendant in the Atkins case, Daryl Renard Atkins, a man with an IQ of 59, just two points above Wilson? And, in Atkins, didn’t Justice John Paul Stevens write this for 6-3 majority?:
Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of our “evolving standards of decency,” we therefore conclude that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution “places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life” of a mentally retarded offender.
One of the members of the Court’s majority in Atkins was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She’s long gone, replaced by the arch-conservative Samuel Alito. Another in the majority in Atkins was Justice Anthony Kennedy. Three years later, It was Justice Kennedy who authored Roper v. Simmons, a 2005 case which outlawed the execution of juvenile offenders. In the intervening seven years, and even last term, Justice Kennedy has consistently sought to narrow the scope of sentencing. Yet Tuesday he was silent.
Can you explain that? I cannot. How can it be possible that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a mentally retarded man with a IQ of 59 but not a mentally retarded man with a IQ of 61? Alas, here we must turn to the other part of Atkins, what the execution of Wilson informs us now is the most important part of Atkins, the part that immediately undermined the scope of the remedy granted in the case. After all, in Atkins, didn’t Justices Stevens, O’Connor, and Kennedy all sign on to this language?:
To the extent there is serious disagreement about the execution of mentally retarded offenders, it is in determining which offenders are in fact retarded… Not all people who claim to be mentally retarded will be so impaired as to fall within the range of mentally retarded offenders about whom there is a national consensus. As was our approach in Ford v. Wainwright, with regard to insanity, we leave to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon its execution of sentences.
It was the last sentence which spelled doom last night for Marvin Wilson. Since 2002, those words have allowed states like Texas, and Georgia, to nurture and protect statutes and case law that directly contradict the spirit, if not the letter, of Atkins. For example, Georgia relies upon a statute which makes the mentally retarded inmate prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he warrants protection under Atkins, a burden no jury ever gets to weigh. Instead, prison doctors and state judges, the same folks who steered pre-Atkins law, get to decide when a condemned man has proven enough retardation to be spared.