SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A man who once scored 62 on an intelligence test - where an IQ of 65 or below qualifies as mental retardation - cannot be executed for a 1980 rape and murder, the Ninth Circuit ruled Thursday, converting the sentence to life in prison.
"There can be no doubt that the crime in this case was truly horrific," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote a divided three-judge panel. "The Constitution, however, regards intellectually disabled defendants as less morally culpable for their crimes, and for this reason, prohibits their execution."
Robert Douglas Smith was sentenced to death in 1982 for the rape and murder of Sandy Owen in Tucson.
At the time of Owen's abduction in 1980, Smith had five failed marriages under his belt. He had been on a cross-country road trip with a couple, and was frustrated that they had intercourse in front of him, while he had no one with whom to be intimate.
The ruling describes in horrific detail Owen's rape and murder, in which both he and his friends on the road trip participated, saying the trio celebrated the killing afterward by playing "We Are the Champions" as they drove off.
In earlier years, Smith had been held back in every grade and sent to a special school for children for children unable to learn. He was only in the eighth grade when he turned 16 and dropped out.
Arizona did not outlaw the execution of people with intellectual disabilities until 2001, however, and Smith's trial occurred more than 20 years after the state created a framework to evaluate capital defendants for intellectual disability.
State courts that eventually evaluated whether Smith was intellectually disabled at the time of the crime concluded he was not, denying Smith's claim in 2012 under a landmark precedent. In the 2002 decision Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the execution of intellectually disabled criminals amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
The Ninth Circuit converted Smith's sentence 2-1 Thursday to life in prison, saying Smith's IQ may have improved while in prison, but that he was clearly intellectually disabled at the time in 1980.
"Considering Smith's intellectual functioning test scores and his history of significantly impaired adaptive behavior," Reinhardt said Smith "demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning."
The dissent by Judge Consuelo Callahan meanwhile blasts the majority for "expressing supreme confidence in its own ability to detect past intellectual disability despite substantial conflicting evidence and the fact that Smith is not now intellectually disabled."
Callahan said Smith's testing in 2005, which revealed an IQ between 87 and 93, is "undeniable" evidence that Smith failed to meet his burden.
The dissent also emphasizes Smith's ability to live independently and support himself for 15 years after dropping out of school, before the murder.
The doctors who examined Smith in 1980 also "determine his competency to be tried found no signs of intellectual disability," according to the dissent
Reinhardt, who authored the lead opinion, included a specially concurring opinion as well.
This lengthy addition complains about how Atkins has been applied in Arizona, which has 124 inmates on death row, the eighth highest number of any state, with 15 executions since Atkins.
"The constitutional infirmity of Arizona's statute creates a recurring problem with potentially far-reaching consequences," Reinhardt wrote, saying the court should have held that both aspects of Arizona's intellectual-disability statute "violate the Eighth Amendment because they permit the execution of individuals whom Atkins deems categorically ineligible for capital punishment."
Judge Mary Schroeder concurred in all but one 11-page section of the 55-page lead opinion.