Thursday, August 09, 2012

Texas justice

This is appalling on so many levels, I barely know where to begin.

On Tuesday, Texas executed a murderer named Marvin Wilson. In 1992, Wilson believed a man named Jerry Williams had turned him over to the police for possessing cocaine. So he killed Williams. These were not nice men; I feel pretty sure I would not have wanted to meet either of them in a dark alley.

But according to a previous Supreme Court decision in a 2002 case, Texas had no business killing Wilson. According to appeal filings, Wilson had an IQ of 61, well below the generally understood minimum of 70 that defines mental retardation.

Marvin Wilson has the mental development of the average first-grader. He sucked his thumb into adulthood; he cannot use a phone book; and he doesn’t understand what a bank account is. As a child he would sometimes clamp his belt so tightly that he would cut off blood circulation. He couldn’t figure out how to use simple toys such as tops and marbles, and he was tormented by other children, who called him names like “dummy” and “retard.”

Texas was determined to kill him despite his low IQ. So they pushed ahead and the Supreme Court voted, without comment, to allow it. Scott Lemieux sums up the implications of this decision:

Apparently, states are now free to define mental retardation however they see fit, which is essentially indistinguishable from just explicitly permitting states to execute the mentally handicapped. Texas's execution of Marvin Wilson was cruel and unusual, but the Eighth Amendment can't prevent injustices if nobody is willing to enforce it.

A Texas judge cited novelist John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men in which a sympathetic Lennie kills without understanding to explain that Wilson could be executed despite his intellectual disability. He just wasn't as sympathetic as Lennie and lived in the world of social service bureaucracies. Steinbeck's son expostulated on learning of the Texas ruling:

My father was a highly gifted writer who won the Nobel Prize for his ability to create art about the depth of the human experience and condition. His work was certainly not meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability. I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous and profoundly tragic. I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way. And the last thing you ever wanted to do, was to make John Steinbeck angry.

The Guardian newspaper reported Wilson's last words:

Wilson “smiled and raised his head from the death-chamber gurney, nodding to his three sisters and son as they watched through a window a few meters away.” He then told them that he loved them, and said his last words:

“Y’all do understand that I came here a sinner and leaving a saint,” he said. “Take me home, Jesus, take me home, Lord, take me home, Lord!”

I guess Wilson figured he was going "home" -- as we all wish to, whatever that means to us.

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