Today Marvin Wilson of Texas was executed by that same state for murdering a police informant. Now, I find it troubling generally that we execute people at all, but this case is especially troubling. Mr. Wilson is black making him four times as likely to receive the death penalty as a white defendant. Justice is not blind.
The average IQ of Americans is somewhere around 100 (though it slowly creeps up every year, an interesting phenomena). Mr. Wilson had a tested IQ of 61. That’s well below the threshold for mental retardation, usually set at 70. Mr. Wilson’s attorney attempted to use the Supreme Court ban on the execution of anyone mentally impaired, but Texas has opted to not consider an IQ of 61 mentally impaired enough to escape execution.
Now, I believe that if a man is proven to be dangerous to the public welfare he should not be allowed to continue to put the public in danger. It is possible Mr. Wilson was truly a danger to the public and that it was appropriate to keep him imprisoned for the public’s sake. But to take away a person’s life for a crime that there is a good reason to believe they don’t really understand the gravity of betrays us as a small-minded and small-hearted people.
Mr. Wilson’s attorneys assert that his cognitive abilities were similiar to an elementary school child’s. How many 4th graders do you know who are able to reliably make sound moral judgements? Who act with reason and within defined social norms? Who regularly understand how their own actions can hurt others and show empathy and regret when they do hurt someone? Would you consider them criminally punishable if their anger got the best of them and they hurt someone or destroyed property? Or if they made an error in judgement that was otherwise well-intentioned that caused some kind of harm?
Let me tell a short story about myself. When I was eight years old, in second grade, my grandfather died. I knew what was going on, that he had been very sick in the hospital, that my parents were very sad, that the right thing to do was to cry. I was deemed old enough to go to the viewing, I saw my grandfather in the casket and said a prayer on the kneeler in front of it. What I mean to say is that every way you would expect to teach an eight year-old about death I experienced. I should have understood the consequences of my grandfather’s death. But I didn’t. For weeks I continued to go looking for him in my grandma’s house, to call down the hall to him, to look to his seat at the dinner table in expectation. I had to be reminded all the time that he wasn’t here anymore (and I am amazed at how gently my grandmother did this, to have to explain again and again such a painful ordeal to her so as not to upset me more). A child may seem intellectually capable and yet have difficulty understanding abstract concepts or consequences. A chronological adult, but a child in the mind, may have the same difficulties.
In the court opinion where Texas sets out it’s standard of mental incapacity it states:
Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt. But, does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?
They are referring to the character of Lennie Smalls in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. This character shows a very child-like mental capacity and accidentally kills the wife of the foreman he works for. When the murder is discovered a mob goes looking for justice. Lennie’s friend George, in order to save him from an assured and drawn out death at the hands of the mob, kills him quickly with a bullet to the head. The reader is to understand this as an act of mercy and friendship from George, not as act of justice for the murdered wife, whose death we are to understand is mostly due to her own folly. The state of Texas apparently skipped that class in 10th grade and believes instead that the book desires us to understand that while we may feel bad about someone’s disabilities it is no reason to withhold “an otherwise constitutional penalty”.
Except that it’s not. It is not legal to execute the mentally impaired. Mr. Wilson was mentally impaired. Texas executed him anyway. In my mind this much is clear, Texas murdered Mr. Wilson by illegal execution.
Where will Texas draw the line in mental impairment? Who will be disabled enough to be morally and criminally exempt from state execution? If we can execute a man with the mind of a child what stops us from executing the child? Did you know that until 2005 we executed people whose crime had been committed while they were minors? That it was only this year that it was deemed unconstitutional to mandate a life sentence to someone under the age of 14? Notice how that a life sentence may be given, but a judge is now allowed to consider the youth of the defendant.
Crime is scary. Murderers shouldn’t be allowed to put anyone else in danger. But we must strive, as a country, to do better by our children and our disabled citizens. We cannot continue to execute those who are not capable of understanding the crimes they commit. When we do we become murderers ourselves.