EJI Challenges Death Sentence of Intellectually Disabled Man


EJI is challenging the ruling of a Houston County, Alabama, trial judge, which refused to shield death row prisoner Jerry Jerome Smith from execution even though he is intellectually disabled.

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute persons with intellectual disability. Three years later, the Houston County trial judge found that Mr. Smith is intellectually disabled but nonetheless sentenced him to death. On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court remanded the case back to the trial judge and ordered him to make specific findings about Mr. Smith’s intellectual disability and whether he is eligible for the death penalty.

In April 2008, EJI represented Mr. Smith at an evidentiary hearing in front of the trial judge and presented evidence that Mr. Smith, almost as soon as he was enrolled in school, was classified as “educably mentally retarded” and placed in special education classes; that multiple experts, including one working for the State, have determined that Mr. Smith is intellectually disabled; and presented testimony from a psychologist who concluded that Mr. Smith is intellectually disabled and testified that his I.Q. is 67, his literacy skills are nonexistent, and that he has deficits in numerous areas of adaptive behavior.

Despite all of this evidence proving that Mr. Smith is intellectually disabled, and despite the fact that the State’s expert agreed that Mr. Smith’s I.Q. is 68 — which meets the Alabama Supreme Court’s criteria for significantly subaverage intellectual functioning (i.e., an IQ of 70 or below) — the trial judge nonetheless found that Mr. Smith is eligible to be executed.

In part, the judge appeared to rely on the fact that Mr. Smith grew up in severe poverty and is African American to explain why he does not think Mr. Smith has intellectual disability, suggesting that he believes that Mr. Smith’s low functioning is attributable to his race and poverty rather than his intellectual disability.

Last month, EJI challenged the trial judge’s ruling in a brief filed at the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. The Court of Criminal Appeals, like the trial judge, previously has found that Mr. Smith is intellectually disabled.