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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Death-Row Inmate’s Plea|of Mental Retardation Fails

CINCINNATI (CN) - A convicted murderer's claim that his mental retardation precludes his execution is irrelevant because his competence was never established during his trial, the 6th Circuit ruled.

James Frazier was convicted of Mary Stevenson's murder in May 2005, and was thoroughly tested by two psychologists prior to his trial to determine whether or not he was mentally retarded.

Frazier's expert witness classified him as "'not far above the upper threshold that's typically used for demarcating the domain of 'mild mental retardation,''" while the state's psychologist cited test scores and his ability to use the bus system to declare Frazier not retarded.

Despite the conflicting reports, Frazier's counsel withdrew his motion for a determination of his client's mental capacity, whereupon the case went to trial.

Frazier exhausted his state court appeals after being sentenced to death by lethal injection, and eventually had his federal court petitions dismissed as well.

Frazier then filed an appeal with the 6th Circuit.

In order to use mental retardation as a means to avoid the death penalty, Ohio law requires the defendant to prove they have significantly sub-average intellectual functioning; significant limitations in two or more adaptive skills and that the onset of their condition occurred before the age of 18.

An IQ of 70 or above - Frazier's was determined to be 72 - also precludes the mental retardation defense.

Frazier's appeal focused on his alleged lack of capacity to waive the rights afforded him in the 2002 Supreme Court case Atkins v. Virginia, and the ineffective counsel provided by his court-appointed attorney.

Writing for the three-judge panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore said that "Frazier's claim of mental retardation is complicated by the fact that there has never been a determination on the merits of whether Frazier is mentally retarded because Frazier's counsel withdrew the motion before the state trial court to determine mental capacity."

Moore said she found counsel's decision to forego the hearings provided for in Atkins was "troubling," and wrote that "here, there is plenty of evidence that suggests Frazier had a chance to overcome [the IQ score of 72.]"

"Frazier had a well-documented history of academic struggles ... [and] moreover, the Social Security Administration had been paying Frazier disability benefits for years based on a finding of mental retardation. ... [T]here is a non-frivolous chance that the state trial court would have concluded that Frazier met the standard for mental retardation," the judge wrote.

"[B]y choosing to withdraw the motion for an Atkins hearing, counsel deprived Frazier of the best opportunity to create a full record on the issue and allow the state-trial-court judge - the judicial officer with the best sense of Frazier's actual abilities - to decide whether he met the Lott definition of mental retardation," Moore added.

However, for all that, the three-judge panel found that the behavior of Frazier's attorney did not prejudice the trial's outcome.

"Frazier's own expert found him not to be mentally retarded. Fairminded jurists could find that counsel's reliance upon [the doctor's] opinion was consistent with professional norms," the judge wrote.

Frazier also claimed his attorney failed to properly investigate his background and mental history, but the panel rejected this argument as well.

Moore pointed out that "Frazier's counsel received the assistance of a court-appointed mitigation specialist that uncovered Frazier's school records, juvenile records, health records, and records from the Social Security Administration. ... Frazier argues that counsel should have also interviewed his siblings ... [but] the problem for Frazier is that two of his three siblings ... admitted to speaking with Frazier's counsel." Frazier also challenged the constitutionality of the State's lethal injection procedures, but the panel determined that an ongoing federal complaint - to which Frazier is a party - that challenges those procedures is the most appropriate avenue for his claim.

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