The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider Georgia’s standard that lawyers contend makes it all but impossible for intellectually disabled capital defendants to prove they are intellectually disabled.
Georgia is the nation’s only state with the death penalty that requires defendants to clear the highest legal threshold — beyond a reasonable doubt — to prove their intellectual disability claims.
The high court’s decision lets stand the death sentence imposed in 2012 by a Newton County jury against Rodney Young for killing his ex-fiancée’s 28-year-old son. Young’s lawyers had tried unsuccessfully to convince jurors Young was intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for capital punishment.
Young was convicted of the murder of Gary Jones, a former corrections officer, in March 2008. Jones was found in his home, bound to a chair. He had multiple skull fractures and a bloody butcher knife and hammer was found next to his body.
In their appeal, Young’s lawyers said their client was consistently identified as intellectually disabled at school. Young was held back in the fourth grade, took special education classes in high school and scored 440 out of 1600 on his SAT.
In 1988, Georgia became the first state in the country to ban the execution of the intellectually disabled. Yet since then only one of the 379 capital defendants tried before a jury has been found guilty but intellectually disabled, according to academic research.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to execute such defendants, saying doing so would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In that decision, the justices left it up to individual states to set their own burdens of proof for such claims.
In an 8-1 decision issued last June, the Georgia Supreme Court declined to overturn the state’s beyond-a-reasonable doubt threshold.
In a concurrence, Chief Justice David Nahmias wrote that of the many claims raised in Young’s appeal, he had “the least confidence” the majority opinion’s decision to uphold the onerous burden of proof for intellectual disability claims.
Joined by Justices Michael Boggs and Nels Peterson, Nahmias noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had arrived at disparate outcomes in similar Eighth Amendment cases depending on the composition of justices. Nahmias wrote if Young appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and it overturned Georgia’s law, he would “obediently accept and forthrightly apply such a decision.”
But Nahmias correctly predicted that, if asked to decide Georgia’s burden of proof violates the Eighth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court “as currently comprised” would decline to do so.
Nahmias also suggested that advocates of changing the state’s legal threshold could try to persuade the Legislature to do so “in light of the extensive developments in the science of intellectual disability and the law in this area since that statute was enacted more than three decades ago.”
He added, “If the General Assembly takes a further humane step with regard to criminal defendants who are potentially intellectually disabled, I would embrace that change.”
Last week, legislation to do just that was introduced. House Bill 1426 would allow capital defendants to prove they are intellectually disabled by a preponderance of the evidence — or that it is more likely than not they are. This lower burden of proof is allowed in about 20 other states that have the death penalty.
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