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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Vacates Intellectually Disabled Prisoner’s Death Sentence

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania vacated a convicted murderer’s death sentence after concluding that the prisoner suffered from an intellectual disability, rendering him ineligible for the death penalty. The February 5, 2018, order replaced the defendant’s death sentence with a sentence of life imprisonment.

James VanDivner was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting death of his fiancée, Michelle Cable. Prior to trial, he filed a motion to preclude the Commonwealth from seeking the death penalty. VanDivner argued that he is intellectually disabled and thus not subject to the death penalty because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). The Atkins Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits imposition of the death penalty upon intellectually disabled criminals.

The trial court denied VanDivner’s motion, and he was sentenced to death. He filed a petition for relief under Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) in which he challenged the trial court’s denial of his motion, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to properly pursue his Atkins claim. The trial court denied VanDivner relief. He appealed, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed.

In Commonwealth v. Miller, 888 A.2d 624 (Pa. 2005), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court established that intellectual disability for purposes of Eighth Amendment analysis is demonstrated by “(1) limited intellectual functioning; (2) significant adaptive limitations; and (3) onset prior to age 18.” Here, the trial court found that VanDivner satisfied the first and third prongs, but not the second. The trial court based this decision, in large part, on evidence that VanDivner took and passed a non-written CDL examination, was previously employed as a long-haul trucker, and maintained relationships prior to his crime. According to the lower court, this “establishe[d] that [VanDivner] displayed appropriate adaptive functioning in the areas of conceptual, social, and practical skills according to the AAIDD [American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Difficulties] definition of adaptive behavior.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed, finding this conclusion “unsupported in both law and fact.” A significant error made by the lower court was an improper focus on VanDivner’s adaptive strengths. The AAIDD directs that assessment of adaptive behavior “focuses on the individual’s typical performance and not their best or assumed ability or maximum performance.” The U.S. Supreme Court recently confirmed this position in Moore v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 1039 (2017), noting that in assessing an individual’s adaptive functioning for the purpose of determining whether the individual is intellectually disabled under Atkins, the focus should be on the individual’s adaptive deficits, not his or her adaptive strengths.

Here, VanDivner presented the testimony of multiple experts who detailed his severe adaptive functioning deficits. All of his experts noted that it would be possible for a person to pass the non-written CDL and drive a truck while still suffering from significant adaptive limitations. Moreover, the evidence established that VanDivner required assistance to handle the truck driving logistics (maps, logging, etc.) and was coached prior to his CDL test. The experts also concluded that an intellectually disabled individual can maintain a family while living with adaptive functioning limitations.

Reviewing the evidence, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the lower court’s conclusion as to VanDivner’s adaptive functioning abilities was erroneous.

“[W]e hold that the PCRA court’s factual finding that [VanDivner] failed to establish that he has significant adaptive limitations because he was married and maintained relationships with his family, was able to learn the content of the CDL study guide and pass an oral version of the exam, and was able to maintain a job as a truck driver, is not supported by substantial evidence,” wrote the Court.

VanDivner also needed to establish that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to properly pursue his intellectual disability claim. Pennsylvania’s version of the Strickland test for ineffective assistance of counsel was established in Commonwealth v. Pierce, 786 A.2d 203 (Pa. 2001), and requires a showing that: “(1) the underlying claim has merit; (2) no reasonable basis existed for counsel’s action or failure to act; and (3) the petitioner suffered prejudice as a result of counsel’s error, with prejudice measured by whether there is a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

The first prong of Pierce was clearly met—VanDivner was intellectually disabled. In addition, there was no reasonable basis for trial counsel’s decision not to further investigate the claim and call additional expert witnesses who were available to testify. And finally, the Court had little trouble finding prejudice because, with an intellectual disability clearly established, VanDivner would not have received the death penalty.

Accordingly, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated VanDivner’s death sentence and directed that his sentence be modified to a life sentence. See: Commonwealth v. VanDivner, 178 A.3d 108 (Pa. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. VanDivner



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