A death row prisoner who has been medically diagnosed as “mentally retarded” and therefore exempt from execution is set to die on Tuesday in Texas, a state that rejects scientific consensus and instead applies its own definition of learning difficulties based on a character in a John Steinbeck novel.
Barring a last minute intervention by the courts, Marvin Wilson, 54, will be put to death by lethal injection even though he has been subjected to scientifically-recognised tests that show him to be intellectually disabled – or “mentally retarded” as the US legal system still calls the condition.
In 2002, the US supreme court banned executions for all such prisoners under the Eighth Amendment of the constitution that prohibits excessive punishment. The 2002 ban, in Atkins v Virginia, is categorical: individuals with mental retardation cannot be put to death. The court allowed some discretion on the part of individual states to devise procedures for administering the injunction, but no right to ignore it.