Federal Court Vacates Alabama Death Sentence

10.12.12

On September 24, 2012, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama ruled that Bobby Tarver cannot be executed because he is intellectually disabled.

Bobby Tarver was 21 years old when he was arrested and charged with capital murder in Mobile, Alabama, in 1981. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but his conviction was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct.

At his second trial, the jury rejected the death penalty and handed down a life verdict, but the elected trial judge overruled the jury’s decision and sentenced Mr. Tarver to death. He wrote in his sentencing order that the evidence showed Mr. Tarver was “moderately retarded.”

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits executing persons with intellectual disability.

Despite the trial court’s finding that Mr. Tarver is intellectually disabled, and even though they agreed that the records from Mr. Tarver’s first and second trials contain “substantial evidence indicating that Tarver is mentally retarded,” the state courts refused to vacate Mr. Tarver’s death sentence.

The federal court expressed concern about the state court’s “disregard for a substantial amount of evidence undermining its conclusion” that Mr. Tarver was not disabled. That conclusion was unreasonable, the federal court held, in light of the “overwhelming” evidence that Mr. Tarver is, in fact, intellectually disabled.

When he was 14 years old, Bobby Tarver scored a 61 IQ score and was deemed to have the mental capacity of an eight-year-old. He was placed in a school program for intellectually disabled students. Two years later, his reading level was determined to be below second-grade level. All of the experts who evaluated him, including the State’s expert, testified that Mr. Tarver was intellectually disabled.

The state court found that Mr. Tarver had adaptive functioning skills that demonstrated he was not intellectually disabled, relying on his jobs as grocery store stock boy, warehouse worker, and metal separator, and on testimony from a prison guard who said he’d seen Mr. Tarver reading the sports page.

“The problem with the circuit court’s analysis,” the federal court wrote, “is that it ignores all of the expert testimony that possession of some social and adaptive skills is not inconsistent with a finding of mental retardation.” That his work experience consisted of a series of manual labor jobs, none held for a substantial period of time, and that he lived at home his entire life, did not take care of his bills and finances, and never lived independently, all support the expert finding that Mr. Tarver suffered from deficits in his adaptive functioning.

The federal court decided that the state court also placed too much weight on Mr. Tarver’s alleged “reading” of the sports page while in prison, noting that he could function only at a first- or second-grade level and may have only been looking at the pictures or pretending to read the paper. Even if he was actually reading the paper, that ability would not mean Mr. Tarver is not intellectually disabled. As the State’s own expert testified, “being mentally retarded . . . doesn’t prevent you from becoming literate.”

Based on its finding that Mr. Tarver is intellectually disabled within the meaning of Atkins, and its conclusion that the state court’s contrary decision was unreasonable, the federal court granted Mr. Tarver’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus and vacated his death sentence.