Ramiro Hernandez is scheduled for execution on April 9 in Texas for a homicide committed in 1997. Mr. Hernandez’s case involves the hallmark principle of justice that we are all equal under the law and a reprieve should be granted in his case in light of the failure of the courts to address the serious question of whether he is even eligible for the death penalty because he is a person with intellectual disability (mental retardation).
For compelling reasons, execution of individuals with intellectual disability is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Intellectual disability affects moral blameworthiness. As the United States Supreme Court found in its decision in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, people with intellectual disability are unable to fully appreciate the consequences of their actions. For that reason, they are inherently lacking in the moral blameworthiness that might warrant a death sentence. In making those findings, the Supreme Court acknowledged a national consensus that people with intellectual disability must be categorically exempt from the death penalty, and held that execution of those with intellectually disability is accordingly unconstitutional.
On multiple tests administered over the last decade, Mr. Hernandez’s IQ scores were in the 50s and 60s, well below the limit set out as a threshold for intellectual disability (70). Indeed, the decision that Mr. Hernandez was not intellectually disabled relied upon the testimony of the state’s expert, who had not met or assessed Mr. Hernandez, and could not even state the clinical definition of intellectual disability. Particularly troubling is the testimony given by this member of the psychiatric profession, who asserted that Mr. Hernandez’s limits in adaptive behavior – a key component of an intellectual disability diagnosis – could be explained away because they were in keeping with the limits of all people in his “cultural group.”
We understand that state officials are in a difficult position when faced with questions of law and fact that have been presented to the courts. Nor do we have the human capacity to understand the pain suffered by the victims in this case. And remarkably, the victim’s wife – who was herself the victim a terrible series of attacks the night of her husband’s murder – is opposed to the death penalty. But the state must make a correction when our system of justice malfunctions – in this case, the very integrity of our system depends on the state’s intervention to avoid execution of person whose death sentence was imposed unfairly.
It is plainly immoral to execute a person who, in the view of all qualified professionals who examined him, is a person with intellectual disability and thus cannot be executed under the laws of our country. Moreover, the court’s finding that Mr. Hernandez does not have intellectual disability is based on the presentation of a single expert whose testimony evidenced stereotypes about the cultural group of which Mr. Hernandez is a part, and also departed from accepted clinical standards on intellectual disability. We cannot be idle when the state intends to execute a person under such circumstances. New policy recommendations related to states’ varying – and often inadequate – approaches to determining if a person has intellectual disability are forthcoming in TCP’s new report on the death penalty, to be released on May 7.
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