In 2001, North Carolina passed a law banning the execution of the mentally retarded. Among other conditions, the law required that defendants produce proof of a reliable IQ test of 70 or below. As described in my new book, The Last Lawyer, the law set off a flurry of activity among the state’s capital post-conviction lawyers.
The Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a non-profit law firm in Durham, NC, that represents death row inmates and provides assistance to lawyers who take on capital post-conviction cases, led the response to the mental retardation law. The CDPL organized an effort to screen the case of every inmate on North Carolina’s death row (at that time, about 200) for evidence of mental retardation. Some anti-death penalty activists wanted to file mental retardation claims on behalf of all death row inmates – even the most able-minded – in hopes of clogging the system with pleadings. That idea was discarded and, in the end, claims were developed on behalf of 52 inmates, a full quarter of the inmates on death row.
One of the claims involved a North Carolina farmhand named Levon “Bo” Jones, whose case provides the main narrative of The Last Lawyer. Jones’s case shows how difficult it is for attorneys to gather strong evidence in borderline mental retardation cases.
Jones had taken at least four IQ tests throughout his life, but the scores fell across a wide range: 71, 80, 83 and 98. He was placed in Educably Mentally Retarded classes in the sixth grade, but if an IQ test had placed him there, those records had been lost. Most frustrating of all, from his lawyers’ point of view, Jones refused for years to take a new IQ test. A stubborn character, Jones hated any mention of the word “retarded” and believed his lawyers should have been focused on proving his innocence, not testing his intelligence
Undaunted, lawyers and investigators from the CDPL spent months and years crisscrossing the rural communities of North Carolina, gathering evidence about Jones’s life skills and abilities. They interviewed Jones’s family members, former employers and teachers and developed a case for mental retardation despite of their own client’s opposition.
For more information about The Last Lawyer, please visit my website.
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