“Intellectual disability is something that is difficult to pinpoint,” said Lucas. “So when you set such a high standard it is almost impossible to meet.”
Of the other states with the death penalty, 21 allow defendants to prove that they are mentally handicapped by excess evidence – or that they are most likely to be. Two require the defendants to demonstrate this with clear and convincing evidence – or that it is very likely.
In 2002 the US Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for executives with intellectual disabilities nationwide. The court found that such persons “do not act with the moral guilt that characterizes the most serious criminal behavior of adults”.
A subsequent study, published in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, looked at death sentences in the eleven years following the US Supreme Court ruling. It found that 55% of the defendants who tried to convince the juries that they were mentally retarded succeeded in states with less evidence.
Battles in court
An IQ of 70 is generally viewed as the dividing line for those who are considered mentally retarded or not. However, the definitions and diagnoses on which mental health professionals rely do not always coincide, leading to fierce battles between prosecutors and defense lawyers over the problem in the process.
Young was convicted of brutally killing Gary Lamar Jones, an amateur boxer and former corrections officer, at Jones’ Covington home. Young had dated Jones’ mother, Doris, in New Jersey for a number of years. But Young got mad when she ended their engagement and moved to Georgia to live with her son.
On March 30, 2008, Young killed Jones with a kitchen knife and hammer while his hands and legs were cuffed, authorities said.
Rodney Young, on Georgia’s death row for the murder of Gary Lamar Jones. (Georgia Department of Corrections)
On her appeal, Young’s attorneys said that her client was consistently identified as mentally retarded by his public school system. He was detained in fourth grade and attended special classes in high school. His SAT score was 440 out of 1600.
Young graduated from high school and enrolled at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia, which recruited him to play football and only required a high school diploma for admission. But he retired after his freshman year because he couldn’t keep up with his schoolwork, his lawyers said.
In her letter, attorneys for the Georgia Attorney General said Young’s jury was entitled not to consider him a mentally retarded person. His trial attorneys failed to provide the jury with test results for his IQ or adaptive functioning. In addition, Young could read, attended college, and successfully navigated his round-trip travel from New Jersey to Georgia.
Prosecutors found that there were four cases where defendants unsuccessfully made claims of intellectual disability but received a penalty other than death. And there are cases where if prosecutors presented evidence of intellectual disability prior to trial, they sentenced those cases to less than death, the state said.
Changed legal landscape?
When the US Supreme Court made its landmark decision in 2002, it did not specifically define intellectual disability, nor did it specify what legal processes – such as the burden of proof – should be used if such a claim is made.
In addition, the Georgia Supreme Court has already upheld the unequivocal burden of proof in two statements, one in 2003 and one in 2011.
But two U.S. Supreme Court rulings have since changed the legal landscape and require course correction, said Young’s attorneys at the State Capital Defender Office and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation.
In 2014, the court ruled unconstitutional Florida Rule, which states that capital defendants who score just over 70 points are not mentally retarded. The court said such defendants could produce additional evidence. Three years later, the court dismissed the Texas procedures for not using legitimate medical diagnostic criteria.
These decisions, say Young’s lawyers, mean states are not free to use frameworks that pose “an unacceptable risk to the execution of people with intellectual disabilities.”
If the court rules in Young’s favor, it could affect four other Georgia death row inmates: Adrian Hargrove, Billy Raulerson, Warren King and Willie Pye. They all tried unsuccessfully to prove that they were beyond doubt mentally retarded.
The court should stop giving death sentences to mentally retarded defendants just because their disabilities are not significant enough to be proven beyond doubt, Young lawyers said. The practice should be stopped “before the integrity and fidelity of our judicial system is further damaged”.