Convictions of Innocent People with Intellectual Disability

By Johnson, Sheri Lynn; Blume, John H. et al. | Albany Law Review, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

Convictions of Innocent People with Intellectual Disability


Johnson, Sheri Lynn, Blume, John H., Hritz, Amelia Courtney, Albany Law Review


INTRODUCTION

In Atkins u. Virginia, (1) the Supreme Court held that executing individuals with intellectual disability violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. (2) Such executions are inherently excessive primarily because individuals with intellectual disability, as a class, do not have sufficient moral culpability to make them deserving of the most serious punishment. (3) In reaffirming this decision in Hall v. Florida, (4) the Supreme Court noted that "to impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being." (5)

Atkins stressed that individuals with intellectual disability "have diminished capacity to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand the reactions of others." (6) This, in turn, reduces the retributive and deterrent purposes of capital punishment due to the fact that persons with intellectual disability have significantly reduced moral culpability due to their cognitive limitations and also makes it less likely that they will be able "to make the calculated judgments that are the premise for the deterrence rationale." (7)

The Court's judgment in Atkins was also informed by a concern unrelated to culpability or deterrence: the heightened "risk of wrongful execution" faced by persons with intellectual disability. (8) Atkins listed multiple factors that increase the risk that an innocent person with intellectual disability may be convicted: they are more likely to confess falsely to a crime they did not commit; they often have difficulty communicating favorable information to their attorneys; they typically make poor witnesses (and thus rarely are able to testify, or testify persuasively, in their own defense); and, their demeanor can convey a false sense of lack of remorse. (9) The Court concluded that these class characteristics reinforced its determination that the death penalty is an excessive punishment for persons with this profound disability. (10)

The Court's description in Atkins of the heightened risk of wrongful conviction and execution facing persons with intellectual disability struck us as right at the time it was made based on clients we had represented wearing our litigation hats. In fact, as fate would have it, at the time the Court decided to re-visit the categorical bar to execution for persons with (then known as) mental retardation, two of the authors were deep in pre-trial proceedings in the case of the State (of South Carolina) u. Johnny Ringo Pearson. (11) Based on our investigation, we believed that our client-'Ringo to his family"--was such a person. The state court stayed the proceedings pending the United States Supreme Court's resolution of the Eighth Amendment issue, and then, after the Court issued its decision in Atkins we conducted one of the very first Atkins Hearings. (12) After multiple days of testimony, the judge determined that Ringo was a person with intellectual disability and quashed the state's notice of intent to seek the death penalty. (13)

But, for a variety of reasons, we were also convinced Ringo was innocent. His confessions matched neither the physical evidence nor the prosecution's theory of the case, (14) a problem which surprisingly did not seem to bother the prosecutors. Moreover, the other main piece of evidence allegedly linking the murder to Ringo, who is African American, was the testimony of two other persons initially charged with the crime but then given immunity in exchange for their testimony--both of whom were white. (15) Their statements were not only inconsistent with Ringo's statements, but also struck us as highly implausible, even ludicrous. (16) Another piece of evidence the prosecution intended to offer was a "duct tape expert", who was prepared to testify that duct tape found on the victim's body "matched" a roll of duct tape found in Ringo's car. …

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