The Death Penalty and Intellectual Disability (Part 1)

by | Jan 9, 2022 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On November 1, 2021, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari in the case of Coonce v. United States. Justice Sotomayor dissented. She was joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan.

The dissent wrote in relevant part: Petitioner Wesley Paul Coonce, Jr., was convicted in federal court of murder. Facing the death penalty, he argued that his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment because he has an intellectual disability. See Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304 (2002). The District Court denied Coonce’s Atkins claim without a hearing, the jury sentenced him to death, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

In denying Coonce relief without a hearing, the courts relied on the definition of intellectual disability by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), which then required that an impairment manifest before age 18. It is undisputed that Coonce’s impairments fully manifested at age 20. After Coonce petitioned for certiorari, the AAIDD changed its definition to include impairments that, like Coonce’s, manifested before age 22. The Government urges us to grant certiorari, vacate the judgment below, and remand (GVR), conceding that it is reasonably probable that the Eighth Circuit would reach a different result on reconsideration given the significant shift in the definition that formed the basis of its opinion. Instead, the Court denies certiorari. Because Coonce is entitled to a hearing on his Atkins claim, and because our precedents counsel in favor of a GVR, I respectfully dissent.

Coonce’s childhood was marked by emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. He cycled through child psychiatric institutions beginning at age four. He entered the Texas juvenile system at age 11. While in juvenile custody, he cut his own body and had to be restrained so he would not further harm himself. He was sentenced to adult prison at age 17, where he continued to engage in self-mutilation. At age 20, after Coonce’s release from state prison, he suffered a traumatic brain injury. Coonce broke multiple facial bones, experienced bleeding around the brain, and briefly entered a coma. His IQ plummeted from average into the range of intellectual disability.

It is not clear why this case is before the Court if the “Government urges the Court to . . . vacate the judgment below and remand.” Under those circumstances, one would expect the Government and defense to make a joint motion to the lower court.