Too Dumb to Die

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Seiler's is among many questions still left unanswered in the wake of the Atkins ruling. This year, the Florida Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case of Clarence Jones, who was sentenced to death for the July 7, 1988, murder of a Tallahassee police officer. Jones has appealed his sentence based on claims of mental disability, and his case should force the state Supreme Court to determine how mental retardation is legally defined.

Other death row appeals based on retardation in Florida have been put on hold pending the Supreme Court's ruling in the Jones case. Among those pending cases is that of Sonny Boy Oats, who in December 1979 killed a woman in an Ocala convenience store during an armed robbery.

Now, most capital trials involving those claiming mental disability have a familiar outcome: The defense's psychologist supports those claims, while the prosecutor's psychologist refutes them. That's what happened in the Atkins case and would have likely occurred in the Moore trial had the accused not accepted a plea deal. The truth is, determining mental ability is a subjective process fraught with opportunities for manipulation.

Until guidelines are established by the courts, it's impossible to know how many of the approximately 350 death row inmates nationwide appealing their sentences are indeed mentally retarded, says Martin McClain, a Fort Lauderdale attorney representing Oats in his mental-disability appeal.

"It's hard to do anything with these cases until we have some sort of framework," McClain says. "A lot of people have a problem with leaving the diagnosis of mental disability to experts, because it's obviously difficult to draw the line, and it's obviously difficult to evaluate someone. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that we cannot execute the mentally retarded. Now it's up to the state Supreme Court to define retardation."

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson