High court to be asked to overturn intellectual disability threshold

Rodney Young, after his arrest in New Jersey for the March 2008 killing of Gary Lamar Jones in Newton County. (Photo courtesy of the GBI)
Rodney Young, after his arrest in New Jersey for the March 2008 killing of Gary Lamar Jones in Newton County. (Photo courtesy of the GBI)

Critics: Georgia standard of proof imposed on death penalty defendants practically impossible to meet

Human rights advocates praised Georgia when it became the first state in the nation to ban the execution of intellectually disabled inmates.

Yet since the law took effect in 1988, only one of 379 death penalty defendants tried before a jury was found to be guilty but intellectually disabled, according to academic research.

Rodney Young, one of the other 378, was sentenced to death by a Newton County jury in 2012 for killing his ex-fiancée’s 28-year-old son. His lawyers tried unsuccessfully to convince a jury he was intellectually disabled.

On Tuesday, Young’s lawyers will ask the Georgia Supreme Court to find unconstitutional the state’s burden of proof that makes it all but impossible for an intellectually disabled defendant prove he or she is intellectually disabled. They note Georgia stands alone among all other states in requiring defendants to prove their intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt.

Georgia’s onerous burden of proof likely means capital defendants who were intellectually disabled have been executed or now sit on death row, said Lauren Sudeall, a Georgia State University law professor who conducted the study of the 379 death penalty cases.

“Intellectual disability is something that’s hard to pinpoint with precision,” Sudeall said. “So when you impose a standard this high it’s nearly impossible to meet.‘”

Of the other states with the death penalty, 21 allow defendants to prove they are intellectually disabled by a preponderance of the evidence — or that it is more likely than not they are. Two require defendants to prove it by clear and convincing evidence — or that it’s highly probable.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to executive people with intellectual disabilities nationwide. The court found such individuals “do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.”

A subsequent study published in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal reviewed death penalty cases in the 11 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. It found that 55% of the capital defendants who tried to convince juries they were intellectually disabled succeeded in states with lower burdens of proof.

Pitched battles at trial

An IQ of 70 is generally considered the dividing line for those deemed intellectually disabled or not. But definitions and diagnoses relied upon by mental health professionals are not always in alignment, leading to pitched battles between prosecutors and defense attorneys over the issue at trial.

Young was convicted of brutally killing Gary Lamar Jones, an amateur boxer and former corrections officer, in Jones’ Covington home. Young had dated Jones’ mother, Doris, for a number of years in New Jersey. But Young became enraged when she ended their engagement and moved to Georgia to live with her son.

On March 30, 2008, Young killed Jones with a kitchen knife and a hammer as his hands and legs were bound, authorities said.

Rodney Young, who sits on Georgia's death row for the murder of Gary Lamar Jones. (Georgia Department of Corrections)
Rodney Young, who sits on Georgia's death row for the murder of Gary Lamar Jones. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

In their appeal, Young’s lawyers said their client was consistently identified by his public school system as intellectually disabled. He was held back in the fourth grade and took special education classes in high school. His SAT score was 440 out of 1600.

Young graduated from high school and enrolled at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia, which recruited him to play football and only required a high school diploma for admittance. But he withdrew after his first year because he couldn’t keep up with his schoolwork, his lawyers said.

In their brief, lawyers for the Georgia attorney general’s office said Young’s jury was justified in not finding him to be intellectually disabled. His trial lawyers failed to present the jury with test results of his IQ or his adaptive functioning, their filing said. Also, Young could read, he attended college and he successfully navigated his round-trip journey from New Jersey to Georgia.

State attorneys noted there have been four cases in which defendants unsuccessfully raised intellectual disability claims but received a sentence other than death. And there are cases in which prosecutors, when presented with evidence of intellectual disability before trial, pleaded those cases to sentences less than death, the state said.

Changed legal landscape?

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in 2002, it did not specifically define intellectual disability, nor did it tell states what legal procedures — such as burdens of proof — to use when such a claim is raised.

Also, the Georgia Supreme Court has already upheld the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt burden of proof standard in two opinions, one issued in 2003 and another in 2011.

But two U.S. Supreme Court decisions since then have changed the legal landscape and require a course correction, said Young’s lawyers from the state capital defender office and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation.

In 2014, the court found unconstitutional Florida’s bright-line rule that said capital defendants who score slightly above 70 are not intellectually disabled. The court said such defendants can present additional evidence. Three years later, the court struck down procedures used in Texas because they did not use legitimate medical diagnostic criteria.

Those decisions, Young’s lawyers contend, mean states are not free to use frameworks that create “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disabilities will be executed.”

If the court rules in Young’s favor, it could affect four other Georgia death row inmates: Adrian Hargrove, Billy Raulerson, Warren King and Willie Pye. They all tried, unsuccessfully, to prove they were intellectually disabled beyond a reasonable doubt.

The court should stop allowing death sentences to be imposed against intellectually disabled defendants simply because their disabilities are not significant enough to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, Young’s lawyers said. The practice should be halted “before more damage is done to the integrity and fidelity of our judicial system.”

In Other News