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State's Narrow Disability Definition Resulted In Unconstitutional Death Sentence

Kim Daram/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

From Texas Standard:

In 1985, Pedro Solis Sosa was sentenced to death for kidnapping and killing a sheriff's deputy in Wilson County. Prosecutors alleged that Sosa killed Ollie Childress Jr. with the officer's own pistol after robbing a bank.


Sosa claims he's innocent, and as of Wednesday, he won't be executed for the crime. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that because of his intellectual disabilities, killing Sosa would be unconstitutionally cruel.

The definition of what classifies a person as 'intellectually disabled' when it comes to the death penalty has been a bit of a grey area for some time. Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center at Washington, says the U.S. Supreme Court it attempting to clarify that definition,

"The definition of intellectual disability is relatively clear in medical circles but states that have been carrying out executions have been creating their own definitions,” Dunham says. “They've made it so that some people who are intellectually disabled will still be executed.”

The Supreme Court ruled in March that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had improperly sentenced Bobby Moore to death– that the medical standards used to do that didn't follow a proper legal framework. Moore's case was cited in Sosa's decision.

Texas has used what’s called the Bricenio Factors to determine what the criteria for an intellectual disability is. But the Supreme Court said the factors were basically a set of lay stereotypes that had nothing to do with whether a person was actually intellectually disabled, Dunham says.

“Instead of looking at whether they had deficits in adaptive functioning and significant impairments in intellectual functioning,” Dunham says, “the court in Texas [used] this requirement under the Bricenio Factors  that you ask a series of questions including ‘Did people who knew the person growing up think that they were intellectually disabled? Were they able to lie successfully and avoid detection?’ Things like that, that have nothing to do with whether you are or aren't intellectually disabled."

Dunham says the Supreme Court’s ruling does not necessarily mean there has to be a medical determination that a person is intellectually disabled before the court can sentence someone to the death penalty, but there does have to be a court determination that a defendant meets the clinical criteria.

“It will make it clearer how you go about deciding whether someone is eligible for the death penalty instead of having lay stereotypes being used,” Dunham says, “You will have to pay closer attention to the clinical definitions that will make the determinations, I think, more accurate. And it will also have the effect of excluding some people from the death penalty who in the past were still being subjected to it."

This ruling doesn’t broaden the definition of intellectual disability, instead it merely brings states up to medical standards that have already been set in place.

"There is a fixed set of standards that are pretty clear in the medical community,” Dunham says. “States that want to execute people who have intellectual disability have been creating their own rules that have artificially narrowed the definition the United States Supreme Court is saying you’ve got to apply the established clinical definition. That definition hasn't changed it's just being made clearer."


Written by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

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