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Low-IQ killer on death row loses high court appeal in split vote

Wesley Coonce has been kept on death row based on the now-outdated rule for when disability occurs after age 18. He was 20 at the time of a car crash that dropped his IQ down to 71.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court saw rebuke from its three remaining liberal justices on Monday for what they called an unprecedented refusal to order a new hearing for a man on death row who would meet the recently expanded definition of intellectually disabled in the leading scientific manual on the matter.

Whereas the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities previously held up 18 as the cutoff age of onset for defining intellectual disability, the latest manual now says that the developmental period lasts until age 22.

Using shorthand for a type of order in which the Supreme Court grants certiorari, vacates the underlying opinion and remands the case for further proceedings, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Monday that the intellectual disability manual has undergone a material change and one that "plainly warrants a GVR."

"To my knowledge, the Court has never before denied a GVR in a capital case where both parties have requested it, let alone where a new development has cast the decision below into such doubt," Sotomayor wrote, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer.

Their dissent came in response to the Supreme Court's denial of certiorari Monday to Wesley Coonce who was 20 when he was in a car crash that dropped his IQ down to 71 out of the previous average range.

Nine years later, in 2010, Coonce was serving time in Missouri for kidnapping and a carjacking when he and a fellow inmate confined to the correctional facility's mental health ward killed a third inmate. The jury sentenced Coonce to death, and his appeals had been unsuccessful but still ongoing when the AAIDD updated the age-18 onset cutoff.

Sotomayor said the Supreme Court has run afoul of the Eighth Amendment in including him Monday in a list of dozens of denied cases.

Congress, too, has established that “a person who is mentally retarded” should not receive such a punishment, Sotomayor wrote, saying that the Eighth Circuit deserves an opportunity to reconsider its ruling based on the new development.

“Coonce asserts an interest of constitutional dimension," Sotomayor wrote. "He requests a meaningful opportunity to be heard on his claim that he has an intellectual disability, such that his execution would ... contravene the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment."

The federal government’s response brief to Coonce’s Supreme Court petition recounts the disturbing details about Coonce's murder of Victor Castro Rodriguez, a crime he carried out with fellow Charles Michael Hall. Surveillance video of the murder showed Coonce leaving Rodriguez's cell and making “a throat slashing sign to another inmate.” Coonce later told the facilities staff he did it because Castro-Rodriguez “was a fucking snitch.” 

Now 41, Coonce is awaiting the death penalty at Terre Haute.

Sotomayor pointed out Monday that she viewed Hall as the ringleader.

“Hall was a decade older than Coonce, with an IQ about 30 points higher. It was Hall who bound, gagged, and blindfolded Castro. Hall consistently asserted that he had killed Castro by standing on his neck and suffocating him,” Sotomayor wrote. She also noted that Coonce, even while born of average intelligence, grew up being emotionally, physically and sexually abused, and first began visiting child psychiatric institutions at 4 years old — later being placed in the Texas juvenile system at 11 and put in adult prison at age 17, where records noted he self-harmed by cutting.

In a brief for Coonce in February 2021, the Chicago-based lawyer Robert Owen called it "significantly likely" that the Court of Appeals would either order an evidentiary hearing or make the finding outright that his client is a person with intellectual disability if allowed to review the case in light of the updated onset rule.

Acting Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar likewise asked the court to grant certiorari, vacate the judgment below, and remand the case. 

“This Court should GVR,” the government wrote, “because the AAIDD’s intervening definitional revision affects a central factual predicate for the court of appeals’ Eighth Amendment analysis.” 

Sotomayor said Monday that issuing such an order “was the least the court could have done to protect this life-or-death interest.” 

“I can only hope,” she added said, “that the lower courts on collateral review will give Coonce the consideration that the Constitution demands.”

Neither Owen nor the Department of Justice immediately returned a request for comment Monday on the Supreme Court’s decision.

As is precedent, the high court did not note why it declined the case Monday. Sotomayor said she found the move “deeply concerning, especially given the strength of Coonce’s claim.”

She likewise noted that only nine states, including Missouri, have adopted a statutory age-18 onset requirement. 

“There is no reason to assume that on reconsideration, the Eighth Circuit would necessarily side with this minority of jurisdictions,” Sotomayor said.

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