A man deemed by medical professionals to be intellectually disabled looks set to be put to death on Thursday evening, after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected a request to stay the procedure. A panel of judges ruled that Robert Ladd — a convicted murderer once given an IQ score of 67, so low as to indicate a mental impairment — had failed to meet the state’s standard for intellectual disability.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Ladd on his appeal, responded on Wednesday by petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of execution.
“Robert Ladd’s life is full of evidence of his intellectual disability, and he doesn’t belong on death row,” said ACLU attorney Brian Stull in a statement. “We will continue to ask the courts to uphold the protections of Atkins and Hall to spare him from execution.”
The Supreme Court ruled in the 2002 case Atkins v. Virginia that executing mentally disabled inmates violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling, however, gave state governments broad latitude to determine who counts as intellectually disabled.
Texas has a particularly narrow definition of who is sufficiently disabled to be exempt from the death penalty, according to Jordan Steiker, director of the University of Texas Law School’s Capital Punishment Center.
“There’s a professional definition of intellectual disability that is embraced by psychologists and psychiatrists, and the Supreme Court referenced the professional definition in its opinion,” he said. “But Texas has taken the view that the definition of intellectual disability used broadly is not appropriate in a criminal context because it might just exempt too many people.”
Thus while a Texas psychiatrist who evaluated Ladd in 1970 found him “obviously retarded,” the state’s courts were able to argue that he did not meet the required threshold under their definition.
Under Texas criminal law, as established in the 2004 case ex parte Briseno, defendants might not be exempt from execution if the are able to “hide facts or lie effectively,” “show leadership” or demonstrate an ability to make plans for the future. But the line in the ex parte Briseno decision that attracted the most public outcry was the one in which the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals cited the John Steinbeck novel “Of Mice and Men” to make its case.
“Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt,” according to the ex parte Briseno opinion, referring a character in the book who kills animals and a woman before finally being killed himself. “But, does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?’
The ruling was subsequently denounced by the author’s son, Thomas Steinbeck, who said he was “deeply troubled” at the book being used “as a benchmark to identify whether defendants with intellectual disabilities should live or die.”
The Supreme Court has shown some willingness to limit states’ ability to define the threshold for claiming an exemption to the death plenty. In the 2014 case Hall v. Florida, the justices overruled Florida’s legal standard, which at the time held that defendants would not be considered mentally incapacitated if they scored anywhere above 70 on an IQ test.
Yet Steiker said he found it “extremely unlikely” that the Supreme Court would spare Ladd, who was convicted in 1996 of beating a woman to death in Texas.
“I don’t think the court seems all that eager to police what’s going on in the state courts,” he said.
As recently as Tuesday, the Supreme Court declined to stay the execution of Georgia inmate Warren Hill, who defense attorneys said was mentally disabled. He was executed later that day.