Supreme Court Permits Execution of Man with IQ of 61

Marvin Wilson was convicted of murder and given a death sentence in 1992. Since the felon was convicted in Texas, this sentence might not be considered unusual in itself. But extenuating circumstances render Wilson's ongoing presence on death row a bit surprising. The Supreme Court ruled in the 2002 case Atkins v. Virginia that executing mentally handicapped persons violates the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment. This case seems to preclude the execution of Williams, who has an IQ measured at 61 and in general clearly has the "subaverage intellectual functioning" and "significant limitations in adaptive skills" that make death sentences unconstitutional under Atkins:

Marvin Wilson has the mental development of the average first-grader. He sucked his thumb into adulthood; he cannot use a phone book; and he doesn’t understand what a bank account is. As a child he would sometimes clamp his belt so tightly that he would cut off blood circulation. He couldn’t figure out how to use simple toys such as tops and marbles, and he was tormented by other children, who called him names like “dummy” and “retard.”

However, buried within Atkins was a time bomb. Rather than setting a clear federal standard, Justice Stevens's majority opinion left "to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon its execution of sentences." This would not be a major problem in a world where state courts could be counted on to apply Supreme Court holdings protecting criminal defendants in good faith. But in the world we've got, the situation is, of course, more problematic.

Texas ignored the clear implications of Atkins and determined that Wilson was not mentally retarded and hence could be executed despite the precedent. When states ignore the directives of the Supreme Court, however, there is a remedy—the Supreme Court can assert itself and overrule the rogue state courts. In this case, tragically, the Supreme Court has allowed a manifest injustice to proceed. Justice Scalia—who wrote an angry dissent in Atkins—denied Wilson's application for a stay of execution. The petition for a stay was then passed on to the whole Court, which also denied it in an unsigned, two-sentence opinion. The vote on the stay application was not made public, but the most plausible inference is that Anthony Kennedy—who received plaudits for his moderation when he joined with the Atkins majority—voted to allow Texas to execute a man with an IQ of 61.

Wilson was executed last night. The Supreme Court's refusal to stop Texas from executing a man with a severe mental handicap is both appalling in itself and renders its own precedent meaningless. Apparently, states are now free to define mental retardation however they see fit, which is essentially indistinguishable from just explicitly permitting states to execute the mentally handicapped. Texas's execution of Marvin Wilson was cruel and unusual, but the Eighth Amendment can't prevent injustices if nobody is willing to enforce it.

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