Longform

Too Dumb to Die

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A Virginia jury convicted Atkins of first-degree murder. His attorneys argued that the killer was unfit for the death penalty. In Virginia, as was the case in many states, mental deficiencies were considered mitigating circumstances. Atkins' low IQ might have qualified him for that description, but he carried out a sophisticated crime and was seemingly intelligent, according to trial evidence. In interviews with psychologists, he showed that he knew John F. Kennedy was president in 1961 and could provide the names of Virginia's two previous governors. Jurors were not convinced that the man was in fact mentally retarded. As a result, they unanimously chose to sentence him to death.

On June 20, 2002, however, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 to reverse the Virginia jury's decision, ruling that putting a mentally disabled murderer to death would be cruel and unusual punishment. "Mentally retarded defendants may be less able to give meaningful assistance to their counsel and are typically poor witnesses," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the court's majority opinion. Such defendants may also be unable to show remorse for their crimes because they do not fully understand what they've done, Stevens added.

Liberal organizations heralded the decision. "The U.S. Supreme Court has finally ushered the United States into the circle of civilized nations when it comes to such executions," Amnesty International Executive Director William F. Schulz said in a statement at the time.

But the Atkins decision never addressed a fundamental problem in diagnosing mental retardation: IQ levels can be deceiving. Although psychologists widely consider a 70-point IQ the line, some people with low IQs can live on their own, hold down jobs, and be responsible citizens. Even in Atkins' case, for instance, psychologists quarreled over the murderer's mental ability. The state's psychologist disagreed with the defense psychologist's assertion that Atkins was mentally disabled and instead insisted that he was of at least average intelligence.

"The details of Atkins' crime demonstrated some sophistication," says Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice League Foundation, a pro-death penalty group that filed a brief in the Supreme Court case. "This wasn't someone like Lenny in Of Mice and Men. "

The problem in prohibiting such executions, Rushford says, is that tests for mental disability can be easily rigged. "If I tell you that you are probably going to be executed if you run fast," he says, "my guess is that you'll run slow." In its Supreme Court brief, Rushford's organization predicted that ruling in Atkins' favor would open floodgates on death row. All of a sudden, Rushford predicted, death row inmates from across the country would claim mental retardation.

And that's exactly what has happened. An estimated 10 percent of the nation's 3,500 death row prisoners are now appealing their sentences based on claims of mental disability. Among those in Florida now claiming mental retardation are Kenneth Watson, who was sentenced to death for the 1988 murder of a pastor's wife in Miami-Dade County, and Tommy Groover, condemned to die more than 20 years ago for a murder in Jacksonville.

"If my client was found guilty, he'd immediately become retarded," Rushford says jokingly. "I'd play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in his cell a couple of times. When you think of a mentally disabled person, you think of some helpless childlike person. This wasn't Atkins."

But was it Kevin Moore?


Kevin Moore's life was hard from the beginning. Joseph Moore, Kevin's father, was a ladies man who dabbled part-time in drug dealing, according to court records and depositions taken from the family. The accused killer's mother, Bernice, ignored her husband's infidelity because she had another lover herself: the bottle.

The family lived in a neighborhood of Deerfield Beach not far from the Palm Beach County line. Kevin was in many ways a strain on the family, remembers Priscilla Robinson, a neighbor who was also one of Joe's mistresses. Even as a small child, Kevin appeared to have significant mental deficiencies. "You [could] see that he looked like he had a little Down syndrome," Robinson said in a deposition. Kevin needed attention, more time and patience than his parents were either willing or able to provide. "It's like they really didn't have -- you know, he wasn't raised too much in a loving way, put it that way," Robinson commented.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson