Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Texas judge refuses new trial for teen with IQ of 47

From the Chicago Tribune:

PARIS, Texas — For more than six hours April 7, as a parade of witnesses testified about the severity of Aaron Hart's mental retardation and his inability to understand his legal rights, the 18-year-old defendant with an IQ of 47 sat silent and shackled in a chair, alternately fidgeting and making faces.

But in the end, none of it was enough to persuade a judge in this small east Texas town to reconsider the 100-year prison sentence he gave Hart in February after Hart pleaded guilty to molesting a 6-year-old boy.

Ruling in a case that critics of the local justice system say raises questions of fairness for the mentally challenged, Lamar County Judge Eric Clifford denied defense motions seeking either a new trial or a new sentencing hearing for Hart. His former special-education teacher testified that Hart functions below the level of a 1st grader.

Last September, Hart confessed to police that he forced the boy to perform oral sex. The boy's stepmother had discovered them both behind a shed with their pants lowered. Hart's court-appointed attorney entered guilty pleas on his behalf to five related felony counts, a jury recommended multiple sentences and Clifford stacked the prison terms to run consecutively, for a total of 100 years.

But Hart's appellate attorney, David Pearson, argued Tuesday that Hart had received ineffective legal assistance because his trial attorney had failed to present any expert testimony about Hart's mental functioning or his ability to comprehend the charges against him.

"This case cried out for a mental health evaluation, to explain this disability to the judge and jury," Pearson told Clifford. "One of the features of people with this kind of mental retardation is they cannot appreciate degrees of wrongfulness."

District Atty. Gary Young countered that a court-appointed expert had determined that Hart was legally competent and that a jury had determined he was a danger to the community.

"Everyone feels sorry for Mr. Hart," Young told the judge. "The question is, do you leave him on the street or send him to prison?"

Clifford, who last week said he had agonized over the case, took only a few seconds to issue his ruling.

"Irregardless of whether he understood his Miranda rights, the evidence I have seen is overwhelming that he committed the offense," Clifford said. "The court finds that allegations of incompetence of counsel are unfounded."

Hart will remain in jail pending the outcome of an appeal likely to be heard in the fall. Hart's parents say he has been raped repeatedly by other inmates since he was first arrested last September.