Timothy Richardson was born to a mother who drank heavily during pregnancy, and he suffered severe lead poisoning as a toddler, both of which kill brain cells and cause IQs to drop. He failed in school and struggled to learn to read. On two IQ tests, he scored below 70, the traditional cutoff for a diagnosis of intellectual disability. As an adult, he was never able to live independently, hold a job, or even take care of his own hygiene and meals. An expert said he functioned at the level of an 11 or 12 year old.
Quick Facts: Timothy Richardson
- Race: African American
- County: Nash
- Date of Crime: October 6, 1993
- Victim: Tracy Marie Rich, White, 23
- Conviction Date: June 1, 1995
- Execution Date: No date has been set, Richardson remains on death row
- Errors: Richardson has significant intellectual disabilities that make his death sentence unconstitutional. The state has refused to acknowledge Richardson’s disability, and a judge has refused his attorneys’ requests for a hearing of the evidence.
Richardson is exactly the type of person the U.S. Supreme Court intended to protect when it decided, in 2002, that it is cruel and unusual to execute people with intellectual disabilities. The decision reflected the evolving beliefs and values of Americans, who broadly agree that only the most blame-worthy defendants should be eligible for the death penalty – not those with disabilities that make them incapable of fully understanding the consequences of their actions or participating in their defense. North Carolina enacted its own law exempting people with intellectual disabilities from the death penalty just before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.
Yet, well over a decade later, Richardson is one of several intellectually disabled people who remain on North Carolina’s death row. His claims that his death sentence is unconstitutional have been dismissed without a hearing, and his attorneys are still fighting for the right to present evidence of his clear intellectual disability in court.
Richardson was sentenced to death in 1993 in Nash County for robbing a convenience store and killing the clerk, 23-year-old Tracy Marie Rich. Richardson’s conviction relied primarily on his own confession, even though the confessions of intellectually disabled defendants tend to be unreliable and sometimes result in wrongful convictions. (Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death after falsely confessing to a crime they had no part in.)
Richardson made three statements to police, all of which were different. A footprint found at the crime scene, which did not match Richardson’s, was destroyed and never checked against other suspects. There remain many unanswered questions about the night of the murder for which Richardson was sentenced to death.
Since the 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Richardson’s attorneys have compiled extensive evidence of an intellectual disability that should allow him to be removed from death row and resentenced to life in prison. Richardson’s mother didn’t know she was pregnant until she was five months along and she drank heavily throughout her pregnancy. Fetal alcohol exposure was just the beginning of the damage Richardson’s brain would sustain.
At 3 years old, Richardson was hospitalized because the lead in his blood was eight times the acceptable limit. One expert said Richardson’s lead level was “like taking a shotgun and shooting at brain cells.” Beginning as early as 11 years old, Richardson compounded the damage by abusing drugs and alcohol. He was addicted to drugs for his entire adult life.
For years, prosecutors fended off Richardson’s claims of intellectual disability by pointing to two IQ tests where he scored slightly above the state’s cutoff of 70. The state discounted two other tests where he scored below 70.
North Carolina is one of many states that have circumvented laws protecting intellectually disabled defendants by relying on a strict cutoff for IQ scores while ignoring other evidence of disabilities. 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, as well as considering how defendants function in daily life – the same standards that have been used for decades by psychologists and teachers.
Even after that decision, Richardson remains on death row. State courts have denied his requests for relief, but a federal court recently found that Richardson is entitled to a new hearing to present evidence of his disability under modern laws.