Tuesday, October 19, 2010

U.S. Supreme Court won't hear Texas case about execution of death row inmate with MR diagnosis

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas:

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal Oct. 18 in an Arlington, Texas, case from a Death Row inmate whose attorneys argue that he is mentally retarded and so should not be executed under a 2002 Supreme Court ruling.

Michael Hall (pictured), 30, was condemned for killing Amy Robinson, a mentally challenged woman who once worked with Hall and co-defendant Robert Neville Jr. at an Arlington supermarket.

Hall and Neville were accused of kidnapping, torturing and fatally shooting Robinson, 19, on Feb. 15, 1998, and leaving her to die in a northeast Fort Worth field. Her body was not found for more than two weeks.

Before Neville's trial began in October, the presiding judge was replaced after he told a group of reporters, "Let's face it, these two are not the brightest apples on the tree."

Neville was convicted in 1998 and executed in 2006.

U.S. District Judge John McBryde and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans have found that Hall is not mentally retarded. His scores on intelligence tests have ranged from 64 to 72. A score of 70 is generally considered the threshold for impairment.

"I'm awfully disappointed that they have decided to kill him," said Danny Burns, one of Hall's appellate attorneys. "I was of the belief that he was mentally retarded. I don't know what happened. He seemed to fit every one of the criteria of being mentally retarded."

Under Texas law, mental retardation can be considered by jurors as a "mitigating factor" when they deliberate a death sentence. At his trial in 2000, a Tarrant County jury heard conflicting evidence about Hall's mental capacity, including testimony that his IQ was under 70.

When the Supreme Court ruled in the 2002 Virginia case that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded, the court left it to states to develop systems to enforce the ruling. However, the Texas Legislature has not adopted new trial guidelines for those cases.

On Monday, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said he was disappointed that the high court refused to correct the flawed process that Texas courts use in cases of mentally retarded defendants.

"Just as modern science should be used to determine someone's guilt or innocence where DNA is available, modern science in the form of a clinical diagnosis of mental retardation should be used to determine if someone can be legally executed," Ellis wrote in an e-mail.

"Since 2003, I have filed legislation to ensure that Texas no longer executes people who are intellectually disabled or mentally retarded, and I plan on doing so again next session."

At one point in Hall's appeals process, in 2008, a panel of the 5th Circuit criticized the Texas appeals court for relying on written documents, rather than holding an open evidentiary hearing, on the issue of Hall's intelligence. It ordered that a hearing be held.

At the hearing, a federal District Court found that Hall did not prove he was retarded, according to a brief filed by the state in the latest appeal. Thomas Jones, the assistant attorney general who represented the state, declined a request for an interview.

But Burns said inmates who knew them both have said that Hall is more severely mentally challenged than Johnny Penry, whose death sentence was overturned three times by the U.S. Supreme Court and whose case energized the debate over the issue. "The truth is that Michael Hall will be executed for something he never fully comprehended," Burns said. "It's just a sad case all the way around. The facts of the case are sad and it's sad that a person like Michael Hall will have to be executed."