Alabama Seeks Execution of Another Person with Intellectual Disability


The State of Alabama plans to execute Willie Smith this Thursday even though his IQ scores demonstrate low intellectual functioning and experts testified that he has the functional independence of a child.

In 2002, the Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia held that the Constitution bars the execution of people with intellectual disability because their “diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand the reactions of others . . . diminish their personal culpability” and increase their risk of being wrongfully convicted and sentenced.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins, Alabama executed four men whose low IQ scores demonstrated intellectual disability. All four—Horace Dunkins, Cornelius Singleton, Willie Clisby, and Varnell Weeks—were Black.

Since Atkins, Alabama has executed at least three people despite credible evidence that they had intellectual disability.

Michael Brandon Samra was executed on May 16, 2019. Starting in early childhood, family members observed that Brandon was developmentally delayed and suffered tremors in his hands. He was in special education most of his life and was unable to finish high school. Mental health experts found prior to trial that Brandon had a low IQ and recommended neurological testing after finding evidence of brain dysfunction.

But Brandon, just 19 at the time of the crime, was too poor to hire a lawyer, and his court-appointed counsel did not hire or consult with an expert in intellectual disability, obtain recommended brain scans, or present evidence of his deficits. The penalty phase in Brandon’s case started a half hour after the jury returned a guilty verdict and ended in a death sentence recommendation that same day.

Like Brandon Samra, Holly Wood could not afford 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 Atkins, an Alabama appeals court ordered a hearing to determine whether Mr. Wood, an African American man with an IQ less than 70, had intellectual disability. Evidence at that hearing showed, and the State agreed, that Mr. Wood’s IQ fell within the range for intellectual disability and that he had significant limitations in functional academics. But the trial court nonetheless found no intellectual disability.

A federal court reversed Mr. Wood’s death sentence because his inexperienced trial lawyer had failed to uncover and present evidence of his intellectual disability at trial. But that ruling was reversed by the federal appeals court and, 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 Supreme Court also denied relief. Mr. Wood was forcibly injected with lethal toxins which killed him in Alabama’s death chamber on September 9, 2010.

Eddie Powell was diagnosed with intellectual disability in the fifth grade and placed in special education classes, where he worked hard but could not keep up with other students. He functioned at only a third-grade level in the seventh grade.

Mr. Powell was not permitted to present in court detailed evidence from teachers, doctors, neighbors, friends, family, and neuropsychological testing showing his adult IQ was in the range of intellectual disability, because an Alabama trial court summarily dismissed his intellectual disability claim without hearing any evidence. No state or federal court gave Mr. Powell a hearing on the merits of his claim.

He was executed on June 16, 2011.

“A Matter of Timing”

Willie Smith, a Black man, was sentenced to death in 1992 for killing a white woman during a robbery in Jefferson County in 1991, when he was just 22 years old.

Despite obvious indications that Mr. Smith was intellectually disabled, trial counsel did not do adequate IQ testing or other psychological testing.

New lawyers later presented IQ scores demonstrating significant sub-average intellectual functioning and experts who testified that he has the reading skills of an eighth grader and the math skills of a sixth grader. The State’s expert agreed that Mr. Smith has adaptive difficulties with “community use, health and safety, self-direction, social skills, and leisure skill areas.”

In 2012, the state court held that Mr. Smith’s adaptive deficits were not enough to show intellectual disability because they were outweighed by his strengths—an analysis that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in Moore v. Texas in 2017.

“This approach was acceptable at the time,” the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals wrote. “But after Moore, it no longer is.”

What is tragic about Mr. Smith’s case is that the decision about whether his low intellectual functioning makes him ineligible for the death penalty was based on an outdated and faulty analysis. It is a mere technicality that the Supreme Court set out the appropriate scientific analysis in 2017, but the Eleventh Circuit nonetheless held that Moore does not apply to Mr. Smith’s case because it was decided after the state court’s decision.

The court wrote that the reason Mr. Smith did not get relief in this case was “a matter of timing.”