In 1992, Marvin Wilson was convicted of murder. He killed Jerry Williams after learning that Williams was the snitch who had pointed police in his direction several days earlier, resulting in his arrest for cocaine possession. After he was released on bail, Wilson and an accomplice, Andrew Lewis, beat Williams in front of a convenience store. They then abducted him and shot him, leaving him on the side of road, beaten and naked. Wilson was arrested the following day.

On August 7th, Mr. Wilson was executed for his actions, following a decision by the 5th Circuit finding that the lower court was correct in ruling that he did not qualify as “mentally retarded.” As soon as he was pronounced dead, death penalty opponents across America flooded the internet with angry tirades condemning Texas for its “barbaric” system of justice. Their complaint stemmed primarily from the fact that Mr. Wilson was deemed “mentally retarded” by neuropsychologist Dr. Trahan, which means he should have been exempt from the death penalty in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia (2002). The two major claims in this article are that the Atkins decision flies in the face of legal precedent and that the trial court was correct in refusing Wilson an Atkins exemption.

Atkins v. Virginia
The Atkins decision involved Daryl Renard Atkins, a man convicted of abducting, robbing, and killing Airman Eric Nesbitt. Just like in the Wilson case, Atkins had a partner, who assisted him in kidnapping Nesbitt and killing him. Except, in this case Atkins took Nesbitt to an ATM machine and forced him to withdraw additional cash after the initial robbery. However, because his IQ was under 70, he was deemed “mildly mentally retarded,” leading Justice Stevens to declare that a death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment.

This ruling was quite arbitrary considering that “mild mental retardation” has not historically been considered an exception when dealing with dangerous criminals. Justice Scalia underscores this in his dissent, writing

“The Court makes no pretense that execution of the mildly mentally retarded would have been considered “cruel and unusual” in 1791. Only the severely or profoundly mentally retarded, commonly known as “idiots,” enjoyed any special status under the law at that time. They, like lunatics, suffered a “deficiency in will” rendering them unable to tell right from wrong.”

Moreover, while the State used Atkin’s prior felony convictions and testimony from four of those earlier robbery and assault victims to prove “future dangerousness,” I believe that this pattern of well-planned crimes indicates that his mental condition was not as serious as the defense asserted. Furthermore, some of these were executed without a partner, who could have taken advantage of his mild retardation, meaning that he was competent enough to act on his own volition. Just ask yourself this – does a man who takes a person to an ATM to rob him and then kill him fit the description of a retarded person with no culpability?

Wilson v. Thaler
Stevens also included this in his decision in Atkins: “We leave to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon its execution of sentences.” When deciding Wilson, the courts in Texas relied on an earlier case to decide whether Wilson should receive the Atkins exemption. This case, Ex Parte Bresino (2004), involved another criminal who attempted to use his low IQ to escape the death penalty. Jose Garcia Bresino killed a sheriff and, while in jail for that offense, orchestrated an escape from prison that left one jailor injured. In its decision in Bresino, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that there are factors other than behavioral and IQ tests that could be used by trial courts when determining Atkins exemptions:

“1.) Did those who knew the person best during the developmental stage-his family, friends, teachers, employers, authorities-think he was mentally retarded at that time, and, if so, act in accordance with that determination?
2.) Has the person formulated plans and carried them through or is his conduct impulsive?
3.) Does his conduct show leadership or does it show that he is led around by others?
4.) Is his conduct in response to external stimuli rational and appropriate, regardless of whether it is socially acceptable?
5.) Does he respond coherently, rationally, and on point to oral or written questions or do his responses wander from subject to subject?
6.) Can the person hide facts or lie effectively in his own or others’ interests?
7.) Putting aside any heinousness or gruesomeness surrounding the capital offense, did the commission of that offense require forethought, planning, and complex execution of purpose?”

If these guidelines were applied to the Wilson case, then it is no wonder that Wilson’s request for an Atkins exemption was denied.

According to Dr. Trahan, Wilson could not “handle money or use a telephone book,” but he could deal drugs and possessed a driver’s license. Either this means he is more competent than Dr. Trahan was led to believe, or that the DMV is now giving away licenses in Cracker Jack boxes. Before this case, Wilson also acted alone in the commission of other robberies, showing that he did not have to be “led around by others” to commit crimes, just like in Atkins. Edward Marshall, a Texas assistant attorney general, underscored Wilson’s ability to formulate plans with this statement,

“Considering Wilson’s drug-dealing, street-gambler, criminal lifestyle since an early age, he was obviously competent at managing money, and not having a 9-to-5 job is no critical failure. Wilson created schemes using a decoy to screen his thefts, hustled for jobs in the community, and orchestrated the execution of the snitch, demonstrating inventiveness, drive and leadership.”

Wilson knew exactly what he was doing when he broke the law. He was a repeat offender and the Court recognized this.

These factors only assisted the Court in its decision to refuse an Atkins exemption, though, since the IQ tests conducted upon Wilson were inconsistent. The child-hood test he underwent yielded a score of 73 and the other, conducted while in prison, a score of 61. Isn’t it possible that he milked his mild mental handicap after being arrested for murder? Furthermore, he scored a 75 on a prison intake examination, and 75 and 79 on two of the nine intellectual assessment instruments used by Dr. Trahan.

When the trial court found that Wilson was culpable for his actions, they did not err in their decision, because Bresino was applied correctly. Wilson was a career criminal, who planned his illegal actions before going through with them. Fortunately, courts in Texas can use the factors laid out in Bresino, otherwise death penalty exemptions would be granted to undeserving criminals pursuant to Atkins, an erroneous decision.

Adam Ondo | University of Rochester | @JoplinMaverick