- Published: November 13, 2012
In 2002, the US Supreme Court ruled that the mentally retarded should not be subject to the death penalty (Atkins v. Virginia), but left the definition of "mentally retarded" up to the states to decide. Texas sets the benchmark for mental retardation at an IQ of 70 or less, yet on August 7, 2012, Marvin Wilson, a man with a measured IQ of 61, was executed. Prosecuters argued that other measures of Wilson's IQ placed him just above this line, and that the relative complexity of his criminal activity demonstrated "inventiveness, drive and leadership." The DSM-IV notes that individuals with IQ scores in the low 70s may still be considered mentally retarded if they demonstrate significant deficits in adaptive functioning, which refers to the ability of the individual to deal with the demands of everyday life and demonstrate personal independence, and prosecutors made the converse argument, that despite a sub-70 IQ score, Wilson displayed adaptive functioning above the level that might be expected from soneone of his IQ.
What's the point of bright lines if they are ignored? Wilson's IQ test clearly places him in the mentally retarded category, even if the complexity of his actions suggest that cognitive IQ measures did not accurately represent his mental capabilities. But let us look at the converse scenario for a moment - an individual with a higher IQ (say 71 to 75) but lower adaptive function than Wilson might reasonably be considered to be mentally retarded according to the DSM-IV, and should be exempted from the death penalty even though s/he would not qualify according to Texas's definition of mental retardation of an IQ of 70 or less. However, adaptive functioning can be improved with proper training, while cognitive IQ remains relatively stable over time. Thus, from the perspective of rehabilitation, the second individual would appear to be more rehabiliate-able than someone like Wilson, and should perhaps be spared the death penalty even though s/he falls on the side of the bright line that would hold him/her marginally to that level of responsibility. But it does not necessarily follow that Wilson, by dint of being deemed, essentially, less retarded than his IQ test suggests, should be eligible for the death penalty. If Wilson was cognitively akin to a child that will never grow up, should he not have indefinitely benefitted from rules akin to those that prevent juvenile offenders from being eligible for the death penalty?