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Eleventh Circuit Refuses to Reimpose Death Sentence for Intellectually Disabled Alabama Prisoner

Over two decades ago, in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) barred capital punishment for intellectually disabled prisoners—typically those with an IQ of 70 or below. Courts still wrestle with that ruling because IQ tests have a margin of error. That means in borderline cases other factors must be considered.

A U.S. District Court in Alabama ruled in 2021 that state death-row prisoner Joseph Clifton Smith met the criteria for intellectual disability. The state appealed, but in a ruling on May 19, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

Convicted in 1997 of fatally beating Durk Van Dam during a robbery, Smith had initially filed a habeas petition in state court arguing that his death sentence violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, due to his intellectual disability, as defined by Atkins. But his test scores indicated his IQ ranged from 72 to 78, which alone would allow the state to put him to death, since Alabama defines intellectual disability as an IQ of 70 or lower. So the state Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his arguments.

Smith then sought habeas relief in federal court. After an initial dismissal was reversed by the Eleventh Circuit, an evidentiary hearing was held where the state presented expert testimony from Dr. Glen King. He noted Smith’s “consistent pattern” of IQ scores ranging from 72 to 78 on five tests, though the score could be as low as 69 due to the margin of error. However, the state also looks for “significant or substantial deficits in adaptive behavior” as evidence of intellectual disability, provided they became evident before age 18. Smith’s experts, Dr. Daniel Reschly and Dr. John Fabian, both found deficits in his adaptive behavior that had manifested since childhood, and he had attended special education classes, too. Based on this, the district court held that Smith met the criteria for intellectual disability, barring him from being executed. His death sentence was vacated, and the state appealed.

Applying a “clear error” standard of review, the Eleventh Circuit noted that the district court had properly applied the framework established in Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. 701 (2014) and Moore v. Texas, 581 U.S. 1 (2017). The state argued the district court had failed “to make a finding concerning Smith’s intellectual functioning,” but the Eleventh Circuit swatted that aside, saying “of course” it made such a finding. Determining—correctly—that the lower range of Smith’s IQ scores after allowing for the margin of error could be below 70, the district did what it must, the Court said—“move on and consider evidence of the offender’s adaptive deficits.”

Nor did the lower court commit clear error then, the Court continued, in finding Smith had significant adaptive deficiencies—which the Court of Appeals had itself found when it reversed the initial dismissal of Smith’s habeas petition. While the state and Dr. King criticized the use of a certain test used to measure Smith’s adaptive functioning, both the district and appellate courts observed that King had used that same test himself previously. Based partly on that disparity, the district court found Dr. King’s testimony lacked credibility. Citing a “mountain of evidence” that indicated Smith had deficits in adaptive functioning, the Eleventh Circuit found no error in the lower court’s ruling and affirmed the order vacating his death sentence. Before the Court, Smith was represented by attorneys Christine A. Freeman, Kacey L. Keeton and Leslie S. Smith with the Federal Defender Program, Inc.. See: Smith v. Comm’r, Ala. Dep’t of Corr., 67 F.4th 1335 (11th Cir. 2023).

On August 17, 2023, the office of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) filed a petition for a writ of certiorari from SCOTUS.

On June 9, 2023, the Eleventh Circuit refused the state’s request to stay its ruling while the high court considers whether to hear its appeal. See: Smith v. Comm’r, Ala. Dep’t of Corr., USCA (11th Cir.), Case No. 21-14519. SCOTUS also declined to issue a stay two weeks later on June 23, 2023, rejecting the state’s claim that a failure to do so would result in “irreparable harm” by forcing Alabama to resentence Smith to life in prison. The high court has not decided since to hear the case, but PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Comm’r, Ala. Dep’t of Corr. V. Smith, U.S., Case No. 22-A-1111.  

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Related legal case

Smith v. Comm’r, Ala. Dep’t of Corr.