A Texas man received the death penalty on Tuesday evening, after the Supreme Court refused a stay in his execution, even though his reported IQ was only 61. The 54-year-old Marvin Wilson was declared legally dead at 6:27 p.m. on Tuesday evening, 14 minutes after receiving a lethal injection.
The state of Texas has been responsible for over one third of America's 1,302 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, but Wilson’s case stands out: According to a 2002 Supreme Court ruling, his death should have been unconstitutional.
According to a 2004 evaluation, Wilson’s IQ is only 61, 9 points below Texas’s cutoff for mental disability. In the 2002 case Atkins vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court voted to ban the execution of mentally disabled individuals, deeming it cruel and unusual punishment.
Wilson's lawyers made what is referred to as an “Atkins appeal” in an attempt to halt his execution for the 1992 murder of police drug informant Jerry Robert Williams, but to no avail: The Court rejected the appeal on Tuesday afternoon, and Wilson was executed later that evening.
What could have gone wrong? The loophole in Atkins that allowed for Wilson’s execution is the provision permitting states to set their own standards for mental disability. In Texas, an IQ of 70 or below is considered the cutoff. However, a number of other factors known as Briseño factors are also used to assess psychosocial capacity. Named after the case George Briseño vs. The State of Texas, the Briseño factors include being married, being employed, having children, and lying for self-preservation.
These factors are not actually recognized by any scientists as proof of mental capacity, but the state of Texas doesn’t seem to care. Because Wilson has held a construction job, lied to police, and has a wife and a son, he was forced to bid his family a final, heartbreaking goodbye on Tuesday evening. “Y’all do understand that I came here a sinner and am leaving here a saint,” WFFA-TV reported him saying. “Take me home Jesus, take me home Lord, take me home Lord!”
These state-by-state regulations on the death penalty have led to a severe disparity in executions across the U.S. In a September 2011 debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry was asked if he had ever struggled to sleep at night given the 234 executions that had occurred during his tenure as governor. Before he could respond, the crowd erupted into cheers. He replied, “I’ve never struggled with that at all.”
That body count includes three people who were underage when they committed their crimes, 10 men whose mental capacity had been questioned, and five men who had received questionably competent legal council. It’s no wonder, given this precedent, that Wilson was put to death. Even with the support of Amnesty International, one of the most well known and influential human rights groups in the world, he never really stood a chance.
It’s understandable that the Court would want to give states some interpretative wiggle room, but injustices like this have gone too far and have gone on for far too long. If the standards for mental capacity can be allowed to completely ignore the opinions of legitimate scientists, what other arbitrary loopholes will execution-happy states like Texas put in?
It makes no sense for one state to have committed nearly five times the number of executions as second highest source of executions, and as many as the next seven most put together. Something is rotten in the state of Texas.