At least two inmates on Virginia’s death row might have an easier time proving they are intellectually disabled — and thus ineligible for capital punishment — because of a Supreme Court decision Tuesday that struck down rules for defining such people with a discrete IQ score, according to experts and lawyers involved in the cases.
Although the legal road ahead is far from clear, Alfredo Prieto and William Burns are likely to use the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hall v. Florida as they seek to get off death row, their attorneys said. Prieto was convicted of killing a man and woman near Reston in 1988 and Burns was convicted of raping and killing his mother-in-law in Shenandoah County in 1998.
Both have challenged their death sentences on intellectual disability grounds in the past, and the Supreme Court’s ruling seems to give them another chance, the lawyers said.
“I believe that at least it opens the door for a fresh look at whether or not he can be given the death penalty,” said Cary Bowen, Prieto’s attorney. “And that’s a big deal.”
The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that states can no longer draw a bright line on IQ-test results to define those with intellectual abilities when it comes to the death penalty. Virginia was among a small group of states that did just that, deciding an inmate who scored above 70 on the test did not meet the first step of proving that he or she was intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for capital punishment.
In Prieto’s case, that IQ score requirement came into play in an earlier proceeding, said Jonathan Shapiro, a visiting law professor at Washington and Lee University and a lawyer at the Greenspun Shapiro firm who represented Prieto in the past.
“Where we presented an intellectual disabilities defense, the state’s argument was, no, that it was a hard-and-fast 70,” he said. “That, obviously, now is not valid.”
Burns, too, is pursuing an intellectual disability claim, although his case is somewhat unusual in that he was declared incompetent for trial — which is different from being intellectually disabled — after he was convicted and sentenced, said Jon Sheldon, his attorney. Sheldon said were Burns’s competency to be restored, he would face testing for an intellectual disability and more hearings, and the Supreme Court’s decision probably would come into play.
Sheldon and other defense lawyers specializing in death penalty cases said the ruling brings Virginia in line with most other states. The broad impact, though, might be somewhat muted, as relatively few inmates sit on death row, and only a subset of them probably would be able to raise a legitimate intellectual disabilities claim, experts said.
John Blume, a law professor at Cornell University and an expert in capital punishment cases, said there probably have been fewer than 20 defendants across the country who “lost because the court said they couldn’t meet the first prong of intellectual disability.”
“It’s not going to open the floodgates to litigation,” he said of the Supreme Court’s decision.
Virginia lawmakers also probably will not have to convene to change the law, which does not explicitly include as part of its definition of an intellectually disabled person a hard-and-fast IQ score, experts said.
The law says such a person must score “at least two standard deviations below the mean” on a standardized test; the state’s high court has interpreted that language to mean a score of 70 or below, experts said.
Rob Lee, the executive director of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, said the decision puts Virginia’s “definition of intellectual disabilities closer to the sort-of worldwide definition” and makes it so prosecutors cannot argue — and judges cannot decide — that a person facing the death penalty is not disabled merely because his or her IQ stands at 71.
“They can’t do that anymore,” Lee said. “They have to come in line.”
Spokesmen for Virginia’s attorney general and governor said state officials are reviewing the ruling to determine its impact.
Lee said that although he is still researching all of the cases in Virginia, the decision will come into play for Prieto, who is pursuing a habeas corpus petition in federal court. Last month, Prieto persuaded U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson to allow him to amend his petition after the decision came down in Hall v. Florida. Bowen, Prieto’s attorney, said that he believed the decision would prompt a hearing for his client.
“But again, it will be the battle of the experts,” he said.
Sheldon said he is exploring whether he might be able to use the decision not just in Burns’s case, but also for two other clients his firm represents in Alabama and Kentucky.
Lee said Virginia has eight inmates on its state death row. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death-penalty cases nationwide, Virginia has six inmates on federal death row, although a jury recently recommended that a former Marine convicted of strangling a fellow service member at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall be added to the list.
Robert Barnes and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.