Alabama Executes Mentally Impaired Inmate Holly Wood


In its fourth execution this year, the State of Alabama put to death Holly Wood today. The Alabama Supreme Court denied Mr. Wood’s request for a stay and Governor Riley denied his application for clemency in spite of strong evidence that he suffers from the type of intellectual impairments that the U.S. Supreme Court has held bar the death penalty, and which his inexperienced lawyer failed to present at his trial.

Holly Wood, an African American man with an IQ less than 70, was too poor to hire a lawyer. The trial court appointed him a lawyer who had just been admitted to the bar and had no experience in criminal law. The lawyer failed to pursue evidence of Mr. Wood’s severe mental impairments even though a competency evaluation revealed that Mr. Wood could not read at better than a third-grade level and had a low IQ. Mr. Wood was convicted and sentenced to death.

After the U.S. Supreme Court held in 2002 that the Constitution forbids the execution of people with intellectual disability, an Alabama appeals court ordered a hearing to determine whether Mr. Wood has intellectual disability.

Evidence at that hearing showed, and the State agreed, that Mr. Wood’s IQ falls within the range for intellectual disability and that he has has significant limitations in functional academics.

The State wrote an order stating that Mr. Wood nonetheless is not intellectually disabled, and the appellate courts upheld that decision.

A federal court, however, reversed Mr. Wood’s death sentence because his inexperienced trial lawyer failed to uncover and present evidence of his intellectual impairments at trial. That ruling was reversed by the federal appeals court.

Early this year, in a decision that focused on the procedural rules that limit federal habeas corpus review and did not reach the merits of Mr. Wood’s claim, the U.S. Supreme Court denied relief.

Mr. Wood’s case highlights Alabama’s failure to provide adequate representation to defendants facing the death penalty. Alabama is the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners. There is no state-wide public defender program in the state and over half of the more than 200 people on Alabama’s death row were represented at trial by appointed lawyers whose compensation for out-of-court preparation was capped at $1000.