The State of Alabama executed Matthew Reeves today despite substantial evidence that he has intellectual disability and that his conviction and death sentence are not reliable.
In 1996, when he was just 18 years old, Matthew Reeves went along with his brother Julius and several other people who planned to commit a robbery. Their car broke down, and when a passing driver stopped and offered to tow their car, Julius decided they would rob the man. Mr. Reeves was arrested and accused of fatally shooting the driver.
Mr. Reeves was too poor to hire a lawyer. His court-appointed lawyers had hundreds of pages of psychological and other records suggesting they needed to have Mr. Reeves evaluated for intellectual disability, but even after the trial court granted them funds, they never hired an expert to evaluate Mr. Reeves prior to trial.
As a result, the jury never heard powerful mitigating evidence about Mr. Reeves’s intellectual disability, including that he failed the first, fourth, and fifth grades and was placed in special education classes, but never advanced beyond middle school.
He was treated for mental health issues beginning when he was eight years old. At age 14, testing revealed that Matthew had “severe deficiencies in non-verbal social intelligence skills and his ability to see consequences.”
A neuropsychologist diagnosed Mr. Reeves with intellectual disability based on testing that revealed he had an IQ of 71 and could read at only a third-grade level. (The State’s expert found his IQ score was even lower, at 68.)
While the jury heard that Mr. Reeves was influenced by his brother Julius, it did not hear evidence that his low intellectual functioning made him particularly susceptible to the influence of others.
Matthew Reeves was convicted in Dallas County of capital murder during a robbery and was sentenced to death even though two jurors voted against a death sentence.
In any other state, the jury’s nonunanimous verdict would bar his execution. Alabama is the only state where a person can be sentenced to death based on a jury’s nonunanimous verdict.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the Eighth Amendment bars the death penalty for children, drawing a line at age 18 that put Matthew Reeves within months of being ineligible for execution based on his young age.
After the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that a person with intellectual disability cannot be executed, Mr. Reeves’s new lawyers presented expert testimony and other evidence showing that Mr. Reeves has intellectual disability.
But the state courts denied relief, and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, following the same reasoning it used to deny relief to Willie Smith, who was executed in October despite strong evidence that he had intellectual disability.
Like Willie Smith, Mr. Reeves was scheduled for execution by lethal injection because he did not elect a new method of execution—nitrogen hypoxia—within the required 30-day period.
His lawyers argued that, without help, Mr. Reeves could not adequately understand or make the decision to elect a method of execution based on a form provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections. ADOC’s failure to assist him violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, they asserted.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on January 7 granted Mr. Reeves’s motion for an injunction and barred the State from executing him by any method other than nitrogen hypoxia before his ADA claim can be decided on the merits.
The State appealed that order to the Eleventh Circuit, which heard oral arguments on Friday and affirmed the district court’s order on Wednesday. The State appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted the State’s application to vacate the injunction ordered by the district order and allowed the execution to proceed.
“[T]he Court today disregards the well-supported findings made below, consigning Reeves to a method of execution he would not have chosen if properly informed of the alternatives,” Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, wrote in dissent.
Noting that “[f]our judges on two courts have decided—after extensive record development, briefing, and argument—that Matthew Reeves’s execution should not proceed as scheduled tonight,” Justice Kagan wrote that the Court “has no warrant to reweigh the evidence offered below” and it had no other basis for reversing the lower court’s detailed findings supporting the injunction.
“This Court should have left the matter there, rather than enable Reeves’s execution by lethal injection to go forward,” she wrote—especially since the State said it will soon be ready to carry out executions by nitrogen hypoxia. “A short delay cannot justify dismissing . . . the strength of Reeves’s suit,” the dissent concluded.