On Tuesday, August 8, at 6:00 p.m., the state executed Marvin Wilson via a lethal injection. Marvin's IQ was 61 – nine points below the official threshold for mental retardation.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Atkins vs. Virginia that executing people with mental retardation violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, most death penalty states have implemented guidelines regarding to who is and is not eligible for execution under these guidelines. In most cases, anyone with an IQ under 70 is exempt. But Texas uses a set of unscientific social factors called the “Briseño factors” – so unscientific that they were largely inspired by John Steinbeck's touching, yet entirely fictional portrayal of Lennie Small in the classic Of Mice and Men. Essentially, and as we saw with the case of Marvin Wilson, a person can be legally and unequivocally mentally handicapped and still be executed in Texas.
A New York Times editorial explains that despite being legally mentally retarded and having the lowest IQ of anyone executed in Texas, the state was not convinced that Wilson was mentally handicapped enough to escape execution:
“Texas has never contested Marvin Wilson's claim of mental retardation. The state has simply refused to accept him as retarded enough to be exempted from execution. His lawyers told the Supreme Court in a brief, 'If he does not obtain federal habeas relief, he will own the grisly distinction as the Texas Atkins claimant executed with the lowest' undisputed I.Q. score.“
A Dallas Morning News editorial calling for a stop to the execution provides further detail on what was involved in Wilson's psychological assessment:
“The person scheduled for execution today – Marvin Wilson of Beaumont – has undergone a comprehensive assessment only by a board-certified neuro-psychologist working for the appeals team. That expert found Wilson to have 'mild mental retardation.' The state did not conduct its own expert assessment, relying instead on documents collected over the years and the impressions of those who have known him, including prison guards who judged Wilson to be 'normal' and 'appropriate.'”
Aside from the moral dilemmas surrounding the death penalty generally, the state's track record calls into question whether it is competent enough to continue to administer such a final punishment. But if nothing else, the state needs an objective and humane definition of what constitutes mental handicap before anyone else is arbitrarily put to death.