United States v. Ronell Wilson, 04-Cr-1016 (NGG), Mem. & Order (Dkt 1535) (Filed 3/15/16)
Ronell Wilson cannot be executed, Judge Garaufis found, despite twice being sentenced to death, because under the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hall v. Florida, he is intellectually disabled, and, therefore, executing him would violate the Eighth Amendment and the Federal Death Penalty Act. This is a stunning victory in so many ways, and the opinion is an important read in any case where there is a possibility that the defendant may be intellectually disabled. The Second Circuit vacated Wilson’s first death sentence in 2010 because of prosecutorial misconduct in the penalty phase (if he were really remorseful, he would have gotten up here and told you that himself).
On remand for the new penalty phase proceeding, the defense argued that Wilson was intellectually disabled. Judge Garaufis conducted an Atkins hearing and concluded that Wilson was not intellectually disabled, because his IQ scores (which ranged from 65 to 81) indicated sufficient intellectual functioning. Because of this finding on intellectual functioning, Judge Garaufis did not consider Wilson’s adaptive skills. After a second penalty trial, Wilson was again sentenced to death. In 2014, the Court of Appeals issued a sua sponte order remanding the death sentence to Judge Garaufis to reconsider his decision that Wilson was not intellectually disabled in light of the Supreme Court’s intervening decision in Hall v. Florida, 134 S.Ct. 1986 (2014) (holding that a strict IQ cutoff rule created an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment) and specifically instructed that the District Court should address whether it needed to consider evidence of Wilson’s adaptive deficits given his IQ scores. United States v. Wilson, 571 F. App’x 19-20 (2d Cir. 2014) (Mem.). After rounds and rounds of briefing, in his opinion, Judge Garaufis revises his prior finding and decides that under Hall, Wilson is legally intellectually disabled.
The opinion rejects the defense’s (and Hall dissenters) argument that following Hall courts must holistically consider evidence of deficits in both adaptive and intellectual functioning in determining whether a capital defendant is intellectually disabled. Instead, Judge Garaufis reads Hall as holding that the standard error of margin for IQ tests must be taken into account when evaluating IQ test scores, and there can be no strict cut off for defendants with IQ scores over 70. Where IQ test scores reach 70 or below when the testing margin of error is factored in, the defendant has demonstrated that he suffers from significantly subaverage intellectual functioning and the Court must then consider adaptive functioning. Taking into account the margins of error on each of the tests that were conducted before the age of 18, Judge Garaufis concluded that Wilson had significantly subaverage intellectual functioning. He notes that although it is a close call, the tone of the Supreme Court’s decision in Hall clearly encourages resolving uncertainty about an IQ score in favor of defendants in close cases. The Court then considered evidence of Wilson’s adaptive functioning. The Government had stressed Wilson’s adaptive strengths while in prison. The district Court found that prison evidence has reduced weight because the analysis must focus on whether the person was intellectually disabled at the time of the crime – not at the present moment. Importantly, the Court rejected the Government’s argument that any adaptive skill problems had to be caused by the intellectual disability rather than by other mental health or learning disability issues. Wilson, like many defendants with intellectual disability, was also diagnosed with a learning disability and with mental health issues, which evaluations had found contributed to his deficits in adaptive behaviors. N.B., that in weighing the credibility of the defense and government’s various experts, the Court questioned the credibility of one of the defense experts on intellectual disability because the expert seemed overly familiar with the guilt phase and prior sentencing of Wilson. After considering the very full record of Wilson’s many adaptive deficits as a child, Judge Garaufis determined that he met the legal standard for intellectual disability, namely: (1) significantly subaverage intellectual functioning; (2) significant deficits in adaptive behavioral skills; and (3) onset of these limitations before the age of 18.
Bottom line: if your client has IQ scores from when he was a minor that are 75 or lower, you should consider pursuing an intellectual disability claim. Even if the scores are a bit higher, you may have an argument depending on the standard error of margin of the particular testing instrument.
-Deirdre von Dornum