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"Intellectual Disabilities" End Decade on Oregon's Death Row; State's "Expert" Sharply Criticized

by Mark Wilson

After serving more than ten years on death row, a 60-year old Oregon prisoner had his death sentence vacated and was ruled ineligible for the death penalty, due to an "intellectual disability."

In November, 1991, Gerald Glenn Phillips, 32, and Belinda Fay Flannigan, 30, were shot to death in a Portland, Oregon motel room. Police immediately suspected Flannigan's ex-boyfriend, Michael Davis, 35, but they had insufficient evidence to charge him.

On June 20, 2002, the United States Supreme Court imposed a categorical ban on the death penalty for people who suffer from "intellectual disabilities," commonly associated with an IQ below 70.

Davis was finally indicted for the 1991 double homicide in 2002, and was ultimately convicted. Despite his long and extensive history of "intellectual disability," including IQ scores of 61 and 62, Davis was not evaluated under Atkins and was sentenced to death in 2005.

In September 2016, Davis had his death sentence vacated because he was not evaluated for possible intellectual disability under Atkins, before sentencing. The case was then remanded to the sentencing court for further proceedings.

The court held a three-day Atkins hearing, in which it heard testimony from Davis's three expert witnesses, Drs. Daniel Close, Stephen Greenspan, and Loren Mallory. Notably, the court found that Dr. Greenspan is "the most-cited scholar in" Intellectual Disability: Definition, Classification, and Systems of Supports (11th ed 2010)(the Green Book), and author of "four of the chapters in The Death Penalty and Intellectual Disability (Edward A. Polloway ed. 2015). Dr. Greenspan has received many prestigious awards and recognitions for his scholarship." The state offered a single "expert" witness, Dr. Michael Daniel, who naturally "testified that Mr. Davis did not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of intellectually disabled."

On October 19, 2016, the trial court issued an 8-page opinion, finding that Davis "has proven by a preponderance of the evidence that he suffers from an intellectual disability. Mr. Davis has deficits in both intellectual and adaptive functioning, these deficits are confirmed by test scores and clinical assessment, and onset of these deficits occurred prior to age 18."

Accordingly, the court declared "that Mr. Davis is ineligible for the death penalty."

The court took two full pages of its opinion to harshly criticize the prosecution's expert, Dr. Daniel, and his findings.

"Although Dr. Daniel disavowed the use of race-based norms in his testimony, the Court is concerned about the fact that Dr. Daniel seems to advocate using race-based norms to determine IQ in his written report," the Court wrote. "Certainly in the context of an Atkins hearing, courts should not consider race-based norms, because the resulting potential for disparate impact based on race would violate fundamental concepts of due process and equal protection."

"Ultimately, the Court gives little credence to the testimony of Dr. Daniel," the Court declared. "He has limited or no experience assessing intellectual disability in the context of a death penalty case, and he does not have any meaningful specialized training. He demonstrated only a cursory knowledge of the Green Book and had very limited awareness of the publication, The Death Penalty and Intellectual Disability." He seemed not to understand the implications of Oregon and United States Supreme Court precedent, "insofar as they provide the standards experts should consider in rendering an opinion regarding this serious subject matter. Finally, Dr. Daniel did not request an opportunity to interview Mr. Davis in order to make a fully informed clinical judgment regarding whether Mr. Davis suffered from an intellectual disability."

In the end the court found, "Dr. Daniel did not properly exercise clinical judgment. In contrast, Drs. Close, Greenspan, and Mallory did." See: State v. Davis, Multnomah County Circuit Court No. 020633788 (Mult Cir. Ct. 2016).

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Related legal case

State v. Davis