Sick Rationale Allows Texas to Execute Another Mentally Disabled Man

Texas has executed another intellectually disabled man under a twisted and unique legal standard that attributed the man’s violent behavior solely to personality disorder, allowing the death penalty, while ignoring his mental retardation—which would have jailed him for life.  

Robert Ladd, a 57-year-old African American whose IQ was measured as 67 as a teenager and reaffirmed during the 19 years he was held on death row, was executed Thursday in Huntsville, Texas, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene.

The execution of Ladd, who was convicted of capital murder in 1997 while working at a community mental health center/mental retardation center, appears to violate two previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings on executing the deeply disturbed and puts a spotlight on Texas’ notoriously unscientific practice of ignoring clinically diagnosed disabilities.

“Texas aggressively pursued Mr. Ladd’s execution, despite the fact that our constitution categorically prohibits the use of capital punishment against persons with intellectual disability,” said Ladd's attorney, Brian Stull, of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “Mr. Ladd, whose IQ was 67, was executed because Texas uses idiosyncratic standards, based on stereotypes rather than science, to determine intellectual disability. His death is yet another example of how capital punishment routinely defies the rule of law and human decency.”

The death penalty, used in 34 states, is one of the most abhorrent features of the criminal justice system. But the way Texas administers the ultimate punishment against mentally disabled people is a profound human rights violation as well as a frightening abuse of state power, flouting national medical norms and U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings.

Tragedy From Beginning To End

Robert Ladd was born on March 19, 1957, to a mother who drank “a half-pint of whiskey at least six days a week” during the pregnancy, the ACLU’s Supreme Court appeal said, noting that Ladd was born underweight and a likely victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, which can cause severe mental disabilities. He “struggled” to take care of himself as a child, and after many signs of developmental disabilities the state took custody of him and sent him to a “Training School for Boys.” There, a staff psychiatrist found his IQ was 67 at age 13.

Numerous medical reports from state case workers during that period and later refer to Ladd as “rather obviously retarded,” the ACLU noted. By age 19, he was functioning at a fourth-grade level. When he was 21, “Ladd was convicted of murdering a young woman and her two children and setting fire to their home,” the ACLU said, noting that he served 16 years of a 40-year sentence before being released under state supervision.

Ladd worked at the Andrews Center, a state-run program for the mentally ill, where he was treated as a mentally retarded client and paid less than minimum wage. Ladd’s case manager said that he was a “high-level mentally retarded consumer,” meaning he was capable of tasks other clients were not. In 1996, he killed a woman “who worked at Andrews, during the commission of burglary, robbery, sexual assault and arson,” the ACLU brief noted.     

Ladd was sentenced to death in August 1997 and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and the sentence. But in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing intellectually disabled people—whose IQ was under “approximately 70”—violates the Eighth Amendment of U.S. Constitution which bars cruel and unusual punishment. But the high court said the states could devise standards for what constitutes mental retardation (a term still used by the courts, while clinicians tend to say "intellectually disabled"). Texas’ response to that opening was to develop standards allowing it to override mental retardation diagnoses by saying the behavior that prompts people like Ladd to commit terrible crimes is due to “personality disorder.”

Lane Florsheim, writing last May for the New Republic, explained how Texas used that wiggle room to find a way to execute the mentally ill:

“A number of states have established their own definitions, so that prisoners who test as intellectually disabled in one state could be eligible for execution in another. Texas, for example, uses a set of guidelines known as the Briseño factors, which consider whether people who knew the individual as a child think he was intellectually disabled and “act in accordance with that determination”; whether the individual carried out formulated plans or conducted himself impulsively; whether the individual can lie effectively; and whether his offense required forethought, planning, and complex execution, among other considerations. The Briseño factors, which were written by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, ask Texas citizens to compare the inmate to the character of Lennie from Of Mice and Men. “Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt [from execution],” they read. By implication, an individual who seems less impaired than the fictional character would not be exempt. The Briseño factors are not recognized by a single clinical or scientific body.”   

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued another decision, Hall v. Florida, again ruling that states could not execute mentally retarded individuals, because “the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution forbid the execution of persons with intellectual disability.” However, back in Texas, despite efforts by Ladd’s attorneys to convert his death sentence to life in jail, the state kept arguing that Ladd wasn’t mentally retarded when he killed Vicki Garner in 1996, but was acting from other personality disorders that took precedent under the Briseño standards.

“In addition to satisfying the traditional definition of intellectual disability by showing significant sub-average functioning and adaptive deficits before age 18, Texas petitionners [like Ladd] must prove that their adaptive deficits are the result of intellectual disability alone, and not a personality disorder,” the ACLU explained to the U.S. Supreme Court, in its brief that did not stop the execution.

“The core of this approach asks non-scientific questions,” the ACLU said, saying “it lacks any basis in professional, medical, or scientific standards concerning intellectual disability… The [Texas] Court [of Criminal Appeals] went on to cite not science, but John Steinbeck’s character Lennie as an example of someone who citizens of Texas ‘might’ deem qualified for the exemption.”

Beyond the absurdity of creating a life-or-death standard drawn from a fictional character in a 1937 novel, the ACLU also noted what any social worker with mentally ill clients would say: there often is no clear line between mental disabilities and personality disorders.

“The science debunks Briseño’s central premise—the sorting of those with intellectual disability from those with personality disorders,” the ACLU wrote. “It is clinically inappropriate to conclude that the presence of diagnostic criteria for anti-social personality disorder rule out a diagnosis of intellectual disability… Instead of science and medicine, it is this subjective view that ostensibly reflects the consensus of the State’s citizenry that controls [death penalty law] in Texas.”

The Supreme Court did not intervene in the ACLU’s final appeal.

Ladd’s execution on Thursday is not the only recent case of a deeply mentally ill person executed in Texas. In 2012, Marvin Wilson, a convicted murderer with an IQ of 61 who “sucked his thumb into adulthood,” was executed after the high court did not act.

Murder, under any circumstances, is abhorrent. Ladd’s crimes were loathsome, but that does not mean the government needs to take an eye for an eye in an era where there is mass incarceration and a mentally disabled man could spend the rest of his life behind bars. 

“We are eager for a court to address the fact that Texas’ unscientific standards can’t be reconciled with the Supreme Court’s decision in Hall v. Florida, mandating that states must use universal medical diagnostic practices rather than inaccurate and self-invented methods for determining intellectual disability,” the ACLU’s Stull said in a statement. “However, no future ruling can undo the unconscionable fact that tonight Texas ended the life of an intellectually disabled man.” 


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