The Death Penalty and Intellectual Disability (Part 4)

by | Jan 15, 2022 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The Court’s refusal to GVR is deeply concerning, especially given the strength of Coonce’s claim. In context, the change in the AAIDD’s definition provides compelling evidence of a shift in consensus in Coonce’s favor with respect to the age of onset requirement. If he satisfies that requirement, he likely could establish an intellectual disability under Atkins. A “The Eighth Amendment prohibits certain punishments as a categorical matter.” As relevant for this case, persons with intellectual disability may not be executed. The medical community defines intellectual disability according to three criteria: [1] significantly subaverage intellectual functioning, [2] deficits in adaptive functioning (the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances), and [3] onset of these deficits during the developmental period.

The Government does not dispute that Coonce has offered enough evidence on the first two prongs of this definition to merit an Atkins hearing. With respect to the third prong, however, the courts below held that Coonce categorically could not prove intellectual disability because the Eighth Amendment required onset prior to age 18. Coonce, by contrast, argued that his age-20 onset may accord with the definition of intellectual disability. Since the decision below, the consensus in support of Coonce’s position has only grown.

The AAIDD’s change in definition offers powerful evidence of this shift. As this Court demonstrated in Hall, the analysis begins by consulting the medical community’s opinions. “The legal determination of intellectual disability is distinct from a medical diagnosis, but it is informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” Our precedent does not “license disregard of current medical standards”). As noted, the AAIDD (relied upon in Hall) now has replaced its prior age18 onset requirement with an age-22 onset requirement, evincing a clear shift.

Under the circumstances it is disturbing how seven of the nine justices are okay with the low-functioning petitioner’s blood on their hands. They would likely respond by noting the disturbing facts surrounding the petitioner’s offenses. The facts of death penalty cases are almost always gruesome.