Intellectual disabilities compromise decision-making skills. They make people incapable of fully understanding the consequences of their actions, and render them unable to participate in their own defense. That’s why, in 2001, North Carolina passed a law prohibiting the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court made the ban nationwide.
However, North Carolina continues to fight to execute people with intellectual disabilities. People are sometimes kept on death row because of a single IQ test where they score slightly above the state’s cutoff of 70. In 2014, the Supreme Court found this practice unconstitutional and barred states from using a strict IQ cutoff to determine intellectual disability. The court said states must look at a range of IQ scores, and also consider how defendants function in daily life — the same standards that have been used for decades by psychologists and teachers. Yet, several people on death row with strong evidence of intellectual disability are still waiting for relief.
Read the stories below of North Carolinians whose IQ should prevent them from being subjected to capital punishment.
Frank Junior Chambers was the third of five children born into extreme poverty in rural Rowan County. His father beat his mother so badly that she suffered permanent headaches and hearing loss. The beatings continued during her pregnancy with Frank, when he hit and kicked her in the stomach. She never received any prenatal care. Compounding the damage, Frank contracted bacterial meningitis as an infant, a frequent cause of intellectual disability.
Throughout his childhood, the signs of Frank’s disability were clear. He couldn’t learn to write his name or follow basic commands. At 8 years old, he still wasn’t potty trained and couldn’t dress himself. His teachers remarked that he was “slow to grasp basic concepts” and he failed several grades. At 12, when testing showed him reading at a second-grade level, his teachers placed him in special education. He dropped out in eighth grade, when he was 15. IQ scores throughout his lifetime range from 63 to 73, clearly in the range of intellectual disability. His mother told his defense attorneys that she always worried her son had brain damage, but that the family was too poor to get him any care. “We were barely surviving,” she said.
As an adult, Frank never held a job for long. He never lived independently, but boarded with a woman who helped take care of him. The woman said he was unable to do basic tasks like hanging clothes on a line, and she was afraid to leave him in the house alone for fear he would accidentally start a fire. “In order for him to understand, you’d have to break down what you were trying to say like [he] was a little kindergarten child,” she said.
In 1994, Frank was one of three men tried for the killing of an elderly couple, B.P. and Ruby Tutterow, during a robbery at their house. Prosecutors portrayed Frank as the remorseless mastermind of the crime. Meanwhile, Frank’s defense attorneys never investigated his family history or had him evaluated by a psychologist. The jury heard nothing of his profound intellectual disability. Meanwhile, the jury sentenced one of his co-defendants to life, precisely because that defendant’s attorneys presented evidence of intellectual disability.
Since 2001, when the Supreme Court banned the execution of people with intellectual disabilities, his appeals attorneys have compiled overwhelming evidence of Frank’s disability. Yet, his claims have stalled in the courts and Frank remains on death row.
Timothy Richardson was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and had severe lead poisoning as a toddler, both of which cause brain damage and serious mental and physical disabilities. He failed in school and struggled to learn to read. As an adult, he was never able to live independently, hold a job, or handle his own daily care. He frequently put his clothes on inside out, and his wife had to remind him to shower. She also adjusted the water temperature for him. He relied on family for errands like grocery shopping because he didn’t understand how much money he had or came home with the wrong items. On two IQ tests, he scored below 70, the N.C. statute’s original cutoff for a diagnosis of intellectual disability. Yet, despite laws that prohibit the execution of people with such disabilities, Timothy remains on death row.
Timothy was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 for the kidnapping and murder of a convenience store clerk in Nash County, Tracy Marie Rich. The most significant evidence against him came from his confession, although people with intellectual disabilities are especially vulnerable to being pressured into false confessions. Timothy’s confession was not recorded or signed, which is required by law today. In it, Timothy said he was present at the crime, but that another man committed the murder. Yet, Timothy was the only person prosecuted. Police found a shoe print at the crime scene that did not match Timothy’s, but it was destroyed and never compared against other suspects. Had it matched the man Timothy named, it might have helped prove Timothy’s limited involvement in the crime.
At trial, an expert told the jury Timothy functioned at the level of an 11 or 12 year old. But at the time, it was still legal to execute people with intellectual disabilities. Seven years after his trial, the law changed to protect intellectually-disabled defendants. Since then, Timothy’s post-conviction lawyers have compiled extensive evidence of his disability. His mother drank alcohol heavily throughout her pregnancy with him. At three years old, he was hospitalized after a blood test showed a lead level of eight times the acceptable limit. One expert said Timothy’s lead level was “like taking a shotgun and shooting at brain cells.” Beginning as early as 11 years old, he compounded the damage by abusing drugs and alcohol. His drug use spiraled when he was a teenager after his brother was killed, and he remained addicted to drugs for his entire adult life.
The state, however, has pointed to two IQ tests where Timothy scored just above 70, and a judge dismissed his claim of intellectual disability. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court once again addressed the issue of intellectual disability and the death penalty, ruling that it was illegal to base determinations of disability on a strict IQ cutoff as the courts did in Timothy’s case. The court said that states should instead consider the defendant’s IQ alongside his functioning in daily life to determine whether he is disabled. A federal court recently found that he is entitled to a new hearing to present evidence of his disability under modern laws.