On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the case of a death row prisoner believed to have intellectual disabilities. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, along with her two left-of center colleagues, responded to the decision.

Wesley Paul Coonce, Jr. was already serving time for kidnapping, carjacking, and murder when he participated in the assassination of Charles Michael Hall, a federal inmate.

The dissent noted that Hall was ten years older than Coonce and had an IQ of about 30 points more. Hall bound, gagged and blindfolded Victor Castro [Rodriguez]. Hall maintained that Castro was killed by him standing on his neck and sucking him to death. However, Coonce immediately claimed the responsibility for the murder.

However, the troubles of the condemned man began long before this fateful day. Sotomayor gives a detailed explanation:

Coonce was abused in his childhood. From the age of four, he was admitted to child psychiatric hospitals. At the age of 11, he entered Texas’ juvenile system. He was 11 years old when he entered the Texas juvenile system. At 17 he was sent to adult prison, where he continued self-mutilation.

After Coonce was released from prison, Coonce suffered a traumatic brain injuries at the age of 20. Coonce fractured multiple facial bones and suffered bleeding around his brain. He briefly went into a coma. His intelligence plummeted to the level of intellectual disability, from an average value.

However, the essence of the facts presented by the dissent is not meant to make anyone feel sorry for the confessed killer. Sotomayor joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and others, has analyzed the time period during which Coonce may have acquired his intellectual disability to argue that the conservative majority of the high court has lost its commitment to the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel or unusual punishment.

Two other timelines are key to this case: (1) Coonce’s procedural efforts to avoid state-sanctioned deaths so far; (2) ever-evolving scientific standards that govern whether someone is officially considered an intellectual disabled.

Coonce’s murder trial began in a time when AAIDD (American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) required that there be a mental impairment manifested before the age of 18. After Coonce was found guilty, and in the middle the sentencing phase, the Supreme Court “held that a rigid rule’ disqualifying a defendant for establishing intellectual disability if he scored a 71 instead 70 on an IQ exam was unconstitutional.”

The defense sought relief under the new standard, abandoning its previous non-reliance upon intellectual disability arguments. It explained that the American Psychiatric Association had recently changed its determination of age of onset of intellectual disability from 18 years to “during a developmental period” and that AAIDD were also moving in this direction. Both the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit and the District Court denied Coonce. They dismissed the evidence as “predictions” that were insufficient to satisfy any Eighth Amendment limitation.

Coonce filed for certiorari before the Supreme Court after these two denials. While his petition was pending the Supreme Court granted Coonce certiorari. The AAIDD changed their definition to include the entire period during which defendant sustained his head injury. The new definition is more precise than the APA and requires that a disability “originat[e] in the developmental period,” which is operationally defined as the time before an individual reaches age 22.

Sotomayor states that Coonce, beyond the formality of these definitions, is intellectually disabled according to professional medical standards.

After reviewing documentary evidence, a defense psychologist administered a series of tests to Coonce over two hours. He found that his IQ was 71. This is within the acceptable range of intellectual disability. Coonce has therefore presented evidence to prove that he is “significantly sub-average in intellectual functioning.”

An evaluation by a defense expert found that Coonce had significant impairments in memory and language. Evidence also shows that Coonce was incapable of holding a job, controlling his impulses, or functioning independently. Coonce’s lawyers claim that even in prison, he is still engaging in self-mutilation and has not been able to take medication on time. He also cannot do basic tasks.

Everyone accepted that Coonce was disabled both in law and fact. Even the federal government sought certiorari from the high court in this case.

Sotomayor states that “the Government asks us to grant certiorari and vacate the judgment below” (GVR), admitting that it is reasonable that the Eighth Circuit will reach a different result upon reconsideration due to the significant shift in its definition.

The majority of the high court denied the petition, prompting a dissent by SCOTUS’s leftmost justice.

Sotomayor writes that “To my knowledge, there has never been a Court denial of a GVR for a capital case in which both parties have requested it.” “The parties identified a new development that has obvious legal implications. “The AAIDD definition was the only source the Eighth Circuit reviewed. The court rejected Coonce’s argument because it was an unrealized prediction that medical experts would agree with Coonce’s view in future. The Government doesn’t defend the below judgment.

Sotomayor concluded by accusing the court’s majority that they failed to protect the “Constitution’s mandates”.

I only hope that the lower courts in collateral review will give Coonce all the attention that the Constitution requires. This Court also has an obligation to safeguard our Constitution’s mandates. Today, it fails to fulfill that obligation. As both Coonce and the Government requested, the Court should have permitted the Eighth Circuit’s review of Coonce’s compelling claim that he has intellectual disability. Respectfully, I disapprove.

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