A Texas court on Tuesday denied a stay of execution to Robert Ladd, a convicted murderer who has an IQ of just 67, according to a test that was administered when he was a teenager. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that sentencing intellectually disabled inmates to death is cruel and unusual punishment, Ladd will be executed Thursday night unless the Supreme Court grants a last-minute appeal.
Ladd has been deemed “mentally retarded” several times throughout his life — first when he was 13 years old and then numerous times since. As an adult, he was employed with a non-profit organization that serviced individuals with intellectual disabilities. But in its ruling this week, Texas’ highest criminal court said that the Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t apply to Ladd because he “failed to satisfy his threshold burden on his claim of mental retardation.”
As the Supreme Court noted in both Atkins v. Virginia in 2002 and Hall v. Florida in 2014, “the medical community defines intellectual disability according to three criteria: significantly subaverage intellectual functioning, deficits in adaptive functioning… and onset of these deficits during the developmental period.” Although Ladd was labeled “fairly obviously retarded” by the Texas Youth Commission at age 13 and later qualified for services at the Andrews Center in Tyler, Texas, which assists the intellectually disabled as well as the mentally ill, Texas’ judicial system found that he does not currently meet the state’s unique definition of intellectually disabled.
Texas courts continue to sentence people to death who should be serving life in prison. The basis Texas uses was developed by a court in 2004 when the state subjected another inmate to the death penalty, using both the American Association on Mental Retardation (now called the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) definition and a less-scientific framework to define how to determine if an individual is intellectually disabled.
In that opinion, the court used the character Lennie from John Steinbeck’s novel, “Of Mice and Men,” to describe the difficulty of determining if someone should be exempted from execution, leading Ladd’s attorney to claim Texas’ ruling affirming Ladd’s execution is based on the novel.
“Anywhere else in the country, Mr. Ladd’s IQ of 67 would have meant a life sentence, not death,” Brian Stull, Ladd’s attorney and a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement. “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.”
In 2002, the Supreme Court first ruled that the execution of anyone deemed intellectually disabled is cruel and unusual punishment and left the definition of an intellectually disability up to the states. While most states use similar standards developed by clinical psychologists to define the condition as anyone with an IQ lower than 70, several states including Texas and Georgia continue to use their own definition.
To clarify its first decision, the Supreme Court in 2014 rejected Florida’s attempt to rely solely on an inmate’s IQ to define intellectually disability, finding that by not considering other evidence of disability, Florida was interpreting the definition of intellectually disability too narrowly.
But in it’s ruling this week the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that Ladd did not meet the broader definition as defined by the state. A concurring opinion filed by one judge said the state’s decision “considers adaptive deficits as well as applicant’s IQ score.”
The ACLU has filed a petition with the Supreme Court hoping to stay Ladd’s execution, but if the court declines, he will be executed Thursday at 6 p.m.
“We are hopeful that the Court will finally rein in Texas’s failure to protect the intellectually-disabled from execution,” Stull told ThinkProgress.