Driving in the United States, I saw a bumper sticker that read: Texas. It’s like a whole other country. And judging by what has just occurred, the Lone Star State is living up to the billing. It’s certainly another country when it comes to recognising, or in this case not recognising, some of the rulings in the United States Supreme Court, especially when those rulings involve the death penalty for capital crimes such as murder. The good people of Texas have just put a convicted killer to death by lethal injection after he spent almost 20 years in prison on death row. So what’s the big deal? The prisoner, a man called Robert Ladd, had an IQ of 67, which would constitute a legal mental disability in most US states, making him ineligible for execution, but not in Texas.
Now, before anyone gets on some high moral horse and starts galloping in my direction, I am not here to defend Robert Ladd. There could be no defence to the crimes he committed apart from intellectual impairment. He strangled a woman, 38-year-old Vicki Ann Garner, beat her with a hammer and then set fire to her body. When he was arrested in 1996 for her slaying, Ladd had been on parole for about four years after serving roughly a third of a 40 year prison term for the murder of a Dallas woman and her two children. How and why he received parole is an interesting question that authorities are yet to answer. Ladd had pleaded guilty to all three murders. He deserved to be incarcerated for what he did. In all probability locked up for the rest of his life. No-one would seriously suggest otherwise. But did he deserve the death penalty? That is an interesting question and it’s where Texas goes it alone, earning the dubious title of America’s most active death penalty state. Texas put Ladd to death by lethal injection having deemed him to be not sufficiently disabled or mentally impaired, according to its own bizarre criteria for the condition. But before I discuss the Texan criteria for mental disability, its important to understand what the United States Supreme Court has said about intellectual disability and the death penalty.
The death of Ladd has exposed a flaw in the normally stringent safeguards imposed by the federal courts on States in the United States that carry out the death penalty. Although the States are generally allowed to set their own standards, the US Supreme Court has twice ruled on the issue of intellectual disability in order to set what it considers to be the parameters for humane and civilised conduct. In the rulings – in 2002 and last year – the Supreme Court banned the execution of people with “mental retardation” on the grounds that it was cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the eighth amendment of the US constitution. It also said that death penalty states had to conform to standards set by medical science and not impose their own arbitrary definitions of mental disability. Clearly someone forget to point that out to the good old state of Texas.
The Texas definition is bizarre to put it mildly. Many would be familiar with the John Steinbeck 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men. It is a classic piece of American literature. But in Texas the book is more than just a classic, it has legal status. Under what are known as “Briseno factors”, the State establishes the profile of an individual who ordinary Texans would agree was intellectually disabled. It points to Lennie Small, the lumbering and childlike character in John Steinbeck’s book, identifying him as the legal yardstick. In other words, the Texas definition of intellectual disability has to match the degree of mental impairment depicted by a character in a fictional novella.
I’m sorry but that is crazy.
“This case is indeed stranger than fiction. said Brian Stull, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project and Ladd’s attorney. ” Anywhere else in the country, Mr. Ladd’s IQ of 67 would have meant a life sentence, not death. But the Texas courts insist on severely misjudging his intellectual capacity, relying on standards for gauging intelligence crafted from ‘Of Mice and Men’ and other sources that have nothing to do with science or medicine. Robert Ladd’s fate shouldn’t depend on a novella.”
Ladd came within hours of being executed by lethal injection in 2003. Finally, a Federal Court agreed to hear evidence about Ladd’s juvenile record that suggested he was mentally impaired. But that appeal was subsequently denied and the Supreme Court last year refused an application to review Ladd’s case. The courts no longer accept juvenile records as an argument in favour of intellectual impairment. His Attorneys made a renewed push for clemency, using similar arguments as his execution date approached. “Ladd’s deficits are well documented, debilitating and significant,” Stull told the court.
But despite the pleas on his behalf Ladd was executed by the State of Texas. His final statement was to his victim’s sister. telling her he was “really, really sorry. I really, really hope and pray you don’t have hatred in your heart,” he said, adding that he didn’t think she could have closure but hoped she could find peace. “A revenge death won’t get you anything,” he said. Then Ladd told the warden: “Let’s ride.” The ACLU said the execution of a mentally impaired prisoner proved that “we are in the midst of a complete systems failure in terms of honouring the constitutional protections the Supreme Court ordered for intellectually disabled people.”
The writer, John Steinbeck once said, Texas was a state of mind. But, if the State of Texas continues to use one of his characters, as a legal benchmark for intellectual disability, out of its mind might have been a more accurate description.