Texas Executes Man With IQ of 61, and He’s the One Who’s Mentally Disabled?

Texas continues to push the limits of cruel and usual punishment.

Texas executes
Marvin Wilson, despite an IQ of only 61, was just put to death in Texas by lethal injection. (Photo: Reuters)
Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Three days ago, 54-year-old Marvin Wilson was strapped to a “lethal injection bed,” attached to an IV, and executed by the state of Texas. Wilson was a self-confessed murderer, convicted of the November 1992 killing of 21-year-old police drug informant Jerry Robert Williams. Wilson was the 25th inmate executed in Texas this year. He was, however, no ordinary Death Row inmate.

Wilson was commonly acknowledged to have an IQ of only 61—nine points below the commonly held standard for mental retardation. His IQ score, as his lawyers noted in a failed last-minute stay of execution appeal, put him “below the first percentile of human intelligence.

According to a report by The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen, Wilson routinely sucked his thumb, had trouble telling the difference between left and right, and could not tie his shoes, fasten buttons, or even match his socks.

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Wilson’s execution was particularly shocking because the Supreme Court ruled in the 2002 case Atkins vs. Virginia that executing the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Texas, however, found a legal loophole.

In the Atkins ruling, justices who penned the majority decision refused to define or require a single, federal standard for what is considered “mental retardation.” Instead, they left the states with the task of “developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon its execution of sentences.”

Given the continued subjective nature of “mental retardation,” the only way to truly protect these individuals is to outlaw the death penalty in its entirety.

Texas essentially used this discretion to unilaterally claim that a man incapable of tying his shoes is somehow not mentally retarded. The scientifically accepted IQ for mental competence may be 70—but not in Texas. This, of course, means that Texas has paved a legal path for any state that wants to execute a mentally retarded inmate to do just that.

TakePart spoke with backers of the California SAFE initiative—which, if ratified by voters in November, would outlaw the death penalty in the golden state. As a matter of practice, California SAFE doesn’t comment on executions that take place outside the state of California.

However, the California Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that Jorge Junior Vidal, a man with an IQ of 77, was mentally unfit for execution. That doesn’t rule out the possibility, however, that another ruling could come along and open the door to killing mentally retarded inmates in California.

Given the continued subjective nature of “mental retardation,” the only way to truly protect these individuals is to outlaw the death penalty in its entirety. 

Of course, any person who kills another human being—even a mentally retarded killer—is a danger to society. However, there are particular challenges when a person accused of a serious crime is of extremely low intelligence. For one, they are too easily coerced into confessing to crimes they did not commit.

In 1982, Virginia police tricked an African-American farmhand with an IQ of 69 named Earl Washington Jr. into confessing to a brutal rape and murder. Washington was put on Death Row and would have been executed had DNA evidence not surfaced in 1994, exonerating him of the killing.

There were questions too surrounding Wilson’s role in the crime he was convicted of. Wilson was aided in the murder of Jerry Robert Williams by an accomplice: Terry Lewis. There was zero forensic evidence pinning the murder on Wilson. The only additional evidence, aside from Wilson’s confession, was the testimony of Lewis’s wife—who, not surprisingly, testified that Wilson, not her husband, killed Williams.

Texas continues to push the limits on what kinds of executions states are legally allowed to carry out. If there isn’t an immediate pushback, who knows who the Lone Star state will strap to a death bed next

Should there be an intelligence threshold to make a person eligible for the death penalty? If you can think of something more absurd, leave it in COMMENTS.

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