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Ark. Death Row Inmate Wins Appeal on Mental Retardation Issue

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on November 19, 2013 2:56 PM

An Arkansas death row inmate won a crucial part of his appeal before the Eighth Circuit on Friday, with the court remanding for a further evaluation of the convict's mental retardation.

According to The Associated Press, Andrew Sasser was convicted of raping and murdering a store clerk 20 years ago, but a recent victory in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals will get him a new hearing in federal district court.

What was the Eighth Circuit's reasoning?

Sasser's Death Row Appeal Battle

Sasser's first death penalty appeal was put on hold pending the 2002 Supreme Court decision in Atkins v. Virginia, where the Court ruled that mentally handicapped persons were not constitutionally eligible to be put to death by the state.

After Atkins was decided, the Eighth Circuit remanded the case two more times to get the district court to make an evidentiary finding on Sasser's claim. Third time's the charm, the district court had a two-day hearing and found that under Atkins and Arkansas law, Sasser was not mentally retarded, and was thus eligible for capital punishment.

It is at this procedural point that the Eighth Circuit made its decision in Sasser v. Hobbs on Friday, remanding the case yet again, stating that the lower court applied a clearly erroneous standard.

IQ Tests Are Not Dispositive of Mental Retardation

The problem was that the district court used IQ test results -- in the borderline range for Sasser -- as a substitute for a critical part of Arkansas law. Atkins allows each state to regulate what it considers mental retardation, and Arkansas law (see Ark. Code 5-4-618) requires findings on four separate factors:

  1. Significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning,
  2. More than one significant deficit or impairment in adaptive functioning, and
  3. These deficits manifested prior to 18 years of age, and
  4. Petitioner has a deficit in adaptive behavior.

Although the Sasser Court had issues with the lower court mixing and matching periods of Sasser's life to make a composite image that was far more functional than his average level, a good sticking point was the first element.

Using IQ tests may be persuasive as to "intellectual functioning," but the Eighth Circuit found that the district court misapplied Arkansas law by denying this first element based on Sasser testing in the 70-80 IQ range. An IQ of 70 is typically considered borderline for mental retardation.

This, in combination with some creative evidentiary ruling on the second and third elements, was enough for the Sasser Court to find clear error in the district court's denial of Sasser's mental retardation claim.

Bottom Line

There is no federal standard for states to follow in finding for mental retardation, but when the stakes are as high as death, the courts have to be diligent in following the state standard.

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