By Christopher Clark
The Supreme Court recently denied certiorari in the case of Hall v. Thaler, declining to weigh in on the purported issue whether environmental factors should be taken into account in determining mental retardation for purposes of employing the death penalty. (http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/hall-v-thaler/). As a result, Texans return to their dramatized emulation of Yosemite Sam, yodeling and happily firing their six-shooters, while the rest of us begrudgingly take cover from the shower of falling bullets. Moral leanings aside, however, I would like to take the opportunity to voice my support for this decision.
The Court properly saw through petitioner’s heartrending issue construction. Texas courts have defined retardation as significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning (usually evidenced by an IQ score below 70), accompanied by related limitations in adaptive functioning, the onset of which occurs prior to the age of 18. Texas retains the right to define mental retardation under Atkins v. Virginia, which holds only a general prohibition on the execution of mentally retarded convicts as a violation of the 8th Amendment bar against cruel and unusual punishment. The request by petitioners to further encroach state rights to create penal law by establishing more than rationality standards is outside the proscription of Atkins.
Furthermore, the standard of the Texas courts does not exclude evidence of environmental factors but rather relies heavily on the principles underlying Atkins—that one should not be put to death for a crime he did not freely and intelligently undertake to commit. In fact, though Hall at some juncture measured below 70 on an IQ test, he also on several other instances scored above. There is also sufficient proof he had few, if any, related limitations in adaptive reasoning. For example, before trial, Hall drafted and argued motions pro se and the judge commented favorably on his drafting skills. Though I’m sure many judges would say they’ve seen incompetent lawyers at bar, I would assume drafting well-pleaded motions should be impossible for one who—seeking refuge as an incompetent—must be so unaware of the consequences of his actions he can claim the state is constitutionally required to protect him.