Federal Court Finds Alabama Death Row Inmate Kenneth Thomas Cannot Be Executed Because He Is Intellectually Disabled


On April 21, 2009, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama found that Alabama death row inmate Kenneth Thomas is intellectually disabled and vacated his death sentence.

In Atkins v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to execute intellectually disabled people because their diminished ability to understand and process information, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, and to control impulses make them less morally culpable and less likely to be deterred by the possibility of execution as a punishment.

The federal court’s conclusion that Kenny Thomas “is not eligible for execution, because the imposition of the death penalty would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment,” is based on evidence presented in a federal evidentiary hearing last year.

The evidence showed that, at nine years old, Kenny had an IQ of 56, and after failing first grade, spent the remainder of his school years in special education classes for the “educable mentally retarded.” He was described as being “less mature than persons his own age—e.g., he not only behaved like, but also looked like someone several years younger than his chronological age; gullible, and easily influenced by others to engage in disruptive, age-inappropriate behavior; incapable of functioning in mainstream classes; and, incapable of remembering or following even simple instructions.”

Kenny never lived independently, but lived with his parents, then foster parents, then his mother, and as a young adult in the home of acquaintances in Alabama and Texas. He opened a checking account when he was eighteen years old, but did not know how to fill out checks, so he asked other people (sometimes strangers) to fill out his checks for him, and then he would sign them.

As an adolescent, Kenny Thomas was able to do very simple household chores, such as folding clothes, but could not carry out many basic household tasks, such as cooking a recipe, preparing a shopping list, using a vacuum cleaner, washing and drying dishes, making a bed, or using a washing machine.

In a 126-page opinion, the federal court detailed the evidence about Mr. Thomas’s intellectual functioning and adaptive deficits and concluded that he meets the definition of intellectual disability. Accordingly, the court ordered that he must be resentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Another Alabama death row inmate, Glenn Holladay, recently obtained relief under Atkins. In January, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the reversal of Mr. Holladay’s death sentence because he is intellectually disabled.