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Justice Sotomayor Dissents as Conservative Majority, Against the Government’s Wishes, Denies Death Row Inmate a Chance to Prove His Intellectual Disability


The Supreme Court of the United States on Monday declined to hear a case brought by a death row inmate believed to be intellectually disabled by all parties to the litigation. The decision elicited a response from Justice Sonia Sotomayor and her two left-of-center colleagues.

Wesley Paul Coonce, Jr. was already in prison for kidnapping and carjacking when he took part in the murder of another federal inmate along with co-defendant Charles Michael Hall.

“Hall was a decade older than Coonce, with an IQ about 30 points higher,” the dissent notes. “It was Hall who bound, gagged, and blindfolded [Victor] Castro [Rodriguez]. Hall consistently asserted that he had killed Castro by standing on his neck and suffocating him. Coonce, however, immediately claimed responsibility for the killing.”

But the condemned man’s troubles started long before that fateful day. Sotomayor explains in detail:

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.

The crux of the facts relayed by the dissent, however, is not to make people feel particularly sorry for the admitted killer. Rather, Sotomayor, jointed by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, has marshaled the timeline during which Coonce likely obtained his apparent intellectual disability in order to argue that the conservative majority on the high court has abandoned a commitment to the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Key to the case here are two other timelines: (1) the procedural nature of Coonce’s efforts to avoid state-sanctioned death so far; and (2) the ever-evolving scientific standards which govern whether or not someone is formally considered to have an intellectual disability.

Coonce’s murder case began at a time when the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) required that a mental “impairment manifest before age 18,” the dissent notes. But after being found guilty–and in the middle of the sentencing phase–the Supreme Court itself “held that a ‘rigid rule’ disqualifying a defendant from establishing intellectual disability if the defendant ‘scored a 71 instead of 70 on an IQ test’ was unconstitutional.”

The next day, the defense moved for relief under the new standard (abandoning its previous non-reliance on intellectual disability arguments) by explaining that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had recently revised its own determination of the age of onset for an intellectual disability from 18 to “during the developmental period” and that the AAIDD were, on good authority, moving in that direction as well. Coonce was promptly denied by both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit who dismissed that evidence as “predictions” insufficient for any “Eighth Amendment limitation.”

After those two denials, Coonce petitioned for certiorari with the Supreme Court. And while his petition was pending, the AAIDD did, in fact, change their own definition to fully encapsulate the period in which the defendant suffered his head injury. More precise than the APA, the new definition requires that a disability “originat[e] during the developmental period, which is defined operationally as before the individual attains age 22.”

Beyond the formalism of those definitions, Sotomayor says that Coonce is, by professional medical standards, intellectually disabled:

A defense psychologist who reviewed documentary evidence and administered a comprehensive battery of tests on Coonce across two 4-hour sessions determined that he had an IQ of 71, within the accepted range for intellectual disability. Coonce therefore has put forth evidence to establish that he has “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning.” …

A defense expert’s evaluation of Coonce identified significant impairments in memory, language, attention, reasoning, ability to organize information, and executive functioning. There is also evidence that Coonce was unable to hold employment, control his impulses, and function independently. Even in the regimented environment of prison, Coonce’s attorneys represent that he continues to engage in self-mutilation, has proven unable to timely take medication, and cannot complete other basic tasks.

By this time, the likelihood that Coonce was both disabled in fact and law wasn’t really disputed by anyone. That’s why even the federal government moved for the high court to grant certiorari in this case.

RELATED: Justice Barrett Questions Biden Admin’s ‘Endgame’ in Arguing for Reinstatement of Boston Marathon Bomber’s Death Sentence

“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,” Sotomayor notes.

But the petition was denied by the high court’s majority–prompting a dissent from SCOTUS’s left-most justice.

“To my knowledge, the Court has never before denied a GVR in a capital case where both parties have requested it, let alone where a new development has cast the decision below into such doubt,” Sotomayor writes. “The parties have identified a new development with obvious legal bearing. The AAIDD definition was one of only two sources the Eighth Circuit consulted, and the court rejected Coonce’s argument solely because, at the time, it was an unrealized ‘predictio[n] that medical experts will agree with Coonce’s view in the future.’ As the Government concedes, the realization of Coonce’s ‘predictio[n]’ surely presents a reasonable probability of a different outcome. Thus, the Government does not defend the judgment below.”

In conclusion, Sotomayor accused the court’s majority of failing to protect the “Constitution’s mandates”:

I can only hope that the lower courts on collateral review will give Coonce the consideration that the Constitution demands. But this Court, too, has an obligation to protect our Constitution’s mandates. It falls short of fulfilling that obligation today. The Court should have allowed the Eighth Circuit to reconsider Coonce’s compelling claim of intellectual disability, as both he and the Government requested. I respectfully dissent.

[image via Smithsonian Institution]

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