NY cop killer off death row as definition of disabled gets tweak
Legal scholars say similar death row decisions are likely to follow
By Michael Balsamo and Colleen Long
NEW YORK — Prosecutors say Ronell Wilson is a calculating murderer. Since his imprisonment for killing two New York City police detectives, he has been able to dash off emails, memorize passages from books and seduce a female guard.
But Wilson's lawyers were able to convince a judge that he is a person of such a low intelligence that he can't function in society, and therefore can't legally be put to death.
Wilson, 32, and others like him are at the center of a debate over how to enforce a nearly two-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that adds more specificity to the concept that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute killers who are intellectually disabled. It says courts should go beyond mere IQ scores to consider the person's mental or developmental disabilities.
A federal judge in New York who revisited Wilson's case based on the ruling tossed out his death sentence, just three years after finding that Wilson's IQ score was high enough to make him eligible to be executed.
A similar review led a judge in California last November to reduce a death sentence given three decades ago to Donald Griffin, a man who raped and murdered his 12-year-old stepdaughter.
A third appeal based on the ruling, that of a Virginia serial killer with a borderline IQ score, failed. Alfredo Prieto was executed in October.
Legal scholars say similar death row decisions are likely to follow, depending on how the high court's ruling is applied around the country.
"We should see courts more carefully considering whether defendants have an intellectual disability ... that doesn't mean we will," said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
Wilson is a case study in the difficulty of determining who fits the court's definition of someone too intellectually limited to qualify for capital punishment.
He was a 20-year-old drug dealer and member of the Bloods street gang in 2003 when he shot undercover police detectives James Nemorin and Rodney Andrew, who were gathering evidence against Wilson in a gun trafficking investigation.
While in prison, Wilson had a tryst with a female prison guard, fathering a child. When that relationship was discovered by jail officials, he interrogated and threatened fellow inmates he believed had ratted him out.
Judges and juries rely partly on a person's IQ score to determine whether he or she is intellectually disabled. Before 2014, some states had a hard rule that if a person's IQ score was above 70, he or she couldn't be deemed intellectually disabled. Over his lifetime, Wilson had been given IQ tests nine times. All but once, he scored over 70.
Yet, his full history, outlined in his court file, paints a more complex picture.
In elementary school, he was repeatedly hospitalized for emergency psychiatric treatment. One time he stood in the middle of a busy street and refused to move. He tried to jump out a window. He smashed furniture, bit and kicked teachers and banged his head against a wall. When a fire started at his school, he refused to leave his classroom, saying he wanted to die.
"When I speak to him or ask him a question, he becomes motionless and rigid and doesn't move," a first-grade teacher wrote.
School officials put him in a program for children with behavioral problems. He was prescribed psychiatric medications. By age 8 he was diagnosed as having "moderate mental retardation," though doctors later decided he had a possible mental disorder due to brain damage. In middle school, he was still sucking his thumb.
Wilson started getting arrested for a variety of criminal offenses at age 12.
U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis said in his ruling Tuesday that he had no sympathy for Wilson and also doubted most clinicians would consider him disabled. But he said he had "significant deficits in adaptive functioning" — enough to make him ineligible for the death penalty. Garaufis imposed a new punishment of life in prison.
Sheri Lynn Johnson, a death penalty expert at Cornell University's law school, said building a case for intellectual disability involves showing that the person has trouble performing simple life tasks.
"Can he use a telephone book? Can he count change? Does he have normal relationships or is he taken advantage of? This is what they're looking for," she said.
Currently, 31 U.S. states, the federal government and the U.S. military all have statutes permitting the death penalty. Nearly 3,000 people were on death row, as of January, according to a report compiled by the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press