Intellectual disability and the death penalty

State v. Agee, 358 Or. 325 (2015)

Death sentence vacated because (along with other reasons) the lower court refused mitigation evidence of intellectual disability (ID) after defendant’s IQ was shown to be in the 80s and because release of new diagnostic standards requires new Atkins hearing

Background: Following an Atkins hearing at which Agee was found not to be intellectually disabled, Agee was convicted of aggravated murder in the Marion County Circuit Court and sentenced to death in 2011. The case came before the Supreme Court of Oregon on automatic direct appeal. Agee argued, among other points, that the lower court’s holding in the Atkins hearing was error given the release of new diagnostic standards in 2013 and that the trial court erred in refusing his request to present mitigation evidence of intellectual disability based on its finding in the Atkins hearing.

Holdings: The Supreme Court of Oregon affirmed Agee’s conviction, but vacated his sentence of death, and remanded the case to the trial court for a new Atkins hearing. The Supreme Court of Oregon held that although the trial court’s initial finding that Agee was not intellectually disabled was not clear error, a new Atkins hearing was still required to determine whether Agee was intellectually disabled because updated standards were now articulated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (“DSM- 5”). In addition, the Court found the trial court’s proscription of ID mitigation evidence was error that was not harmless.

Notable Points:

No clear error in initial determination under DSM-IV-TR criteria: The Supreme Court rejected Agee’s argument that the trial court used a bright-line rule to arrive at the conclusion that he was not intellectually disabled. Instead the Supreme Court held that the trial court had merely determined that Agee had failed to meet the intellectual functioning prong of the Atkins analysis, and that the trial court’s ultimate decision rested on that fact as well as consideration of Agee’s IQ subtest scores and the results of other neuropsychological tests. 

Remand and new hearing required despite lack of clear error in first determination: The Supreme Court held that allowing the trial court’s ruling to stand “would create an unacceptable risk that a person with intellectual disability will be executed.” The court made this determination largely on the basis that the standards for determining intellectual disability were under review by the psychological community at the time of the first Atkins hearing. Thus “even though the trial court’s ruling comported with the published standards existing at the time that the court ruled” the trial court “did not apply now-current medical standards in determining that the defendant had not met his burden of proof.”

Found in Found in DMHL Volume 34, Issue 4