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Prisoner Education Guide

Intellectual Disability and Wrongful Conviction in Death Cases: A Lethal Combination

by David M. Reutter

The death penalty is sold by its advocates as a crime deterrent or a penalty reserved for the most heinous of crimes. The reality is that the death penalty is often used as a political tool for prosecutors and judges to enhance their re-electability and to give their local community a sense that they are in control.

While death sentences are portrayed as being carefully chosen and reserved solely for society’s worst offenders, the fact is that the vast majority of wrongful death convictions involve intellectually disabled defendants.

The New York-based Innocence Project reports that of its first 130 exonerations obtained by DNA evidence, 85 involved people making false confessions. Mental impairment is the common risk factor for false confessions. When you throw prosecutorial misconduct into the mix, the intellectually disabled meet the lethal intersection in the very place where justice is to prevail: the courtroom.

South Carolina authorities convicted Kenneth Simmons of the 1996 brutal murder and criminal sexual assault of an 89-year-old Summerville woman. In a post-conviction relief proceeding, the court vacated Simmons’ death sentence and imposed a life in prison without parole sentence because Simmons is intellectually disabled.

Intellectually disabled individuals are particularly vulnerable to being wrongfully convicted. As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, such defendants “may be less able to give meaningful assistance to their counsel, and are typically poor witnesses, and their demeanor may create an unwarranted impression of lack of remorse for their crimes.” That is a recipe for disaster as a criminal defendant in a capital case.

In Simmons’ case, the prosecutor used flawed DNA evidence and misrepresented its significance to the case. The prosecutor presented statistical evidence pertaining to the probability that someone else shares the same DNA profile as Simmons, not the likelihood that Simmons left the DNA that was taken from the victim and the crime scene. Presenting the irrelevant statistical probability only served to confuse the jury, not link Simmons to the crime.

The prosecution also hid evidence that “no male DNA was present” in the relevant sample. To make matters worse, the state’s DNA expert relied upon a chart provided by the prosecution, which contained false information regarding the DNA samples. To complete its ethically and evidentially challenged case, the prosecution used a confession from Simmons, which was taken one year after the crime was committed.

While Simmons is receiving a hearing on the DNA evidence claim, many intellectually or mentally disabled prisoners are not as fortunate. Ohio authorities sentenced Reginald Brooks to death for the murder of his three sons. Prosecutors hid evidence from his trial counsel that prior to the killings, Brooks had displayed bizarre, aberrant, and paranoid behavior indicative of a deteriorating mental state. A judge found him competent to be executed 18 years later, but the court noted Brooks suffered from paranoid schizophrenia with “persecutory delusions that he had been framed for a crime that occurred while he was leaving town.”

In an article for the Ohio State Law Journal, Professor James Liebman found over a 22-year period, 66 of the 3,007 counties in the U.S. accounted for 2,569 of the 5,131 (approximately 50 percent) death sentences imposed. While the number of counties and states that impose death sentences is dwindling, that does not reduce prosecutors’ zeal.

Philadelphia prosecutor Lynn Abraham confesses to a “passionate” commitment to the death penalty. While she doubts it deters crime, she says it gives citizens “the feeling of control demanded by a city in decay.” In pursuit of the death penalty, prosecutors often cross the ethical line. An Amnesty International Study of 13 executions in California found that in seven cases prosecutorial misconduct was raised on appeal.

“There is little incentive for prosecutors to reform their ways,” wrote Michael L. Perlin, JD, in a Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law article. “There is often absolutely no accountability.”

He noted that in 150 convictions in Louisiana where prosecutorial misconduct was found, only 20 resulted in reversals. Of 707 California cases where the courts found prosecutorial misconduct, the offending prosecutors were “almost never disciplined.”

As Dr. Saby Ghoshray observed, “The deadly cocktail of racial disparity, inadequate counsel, and prosecutorial misconduct continues to interject lethal consequences for mentally incapacitated prisoners.” See: Simmons v. Sate, 788 S.E.2d 220 (S.C. 2016). 

Additional sources: www.prosecutorialaccountability.com, www.deathpenaltyinfo.org, Ohio State Law Journal, The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law

Related legal case

Simmons v. State




 

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