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Georgia Moves Closer to Establishing Fair Process for Determining Intellectual Disability in People Facing Death Penalty

In 1986, the state of Georgia executed a Black man with intellectual disability named Jerome Bowden. Mr. Bowden had an IQ of 65. While he was strapped in the electric chair and awaiting death, he thanked the prison for taking such good care of him. The criticism that followed Mr. Bowden’s execution was swift, and in 1988, the state passed a law prohibiting the execution of people with intellectual disabilities.  

That law was the first of its kind in the country, but Georgia is also the only state in the country that requires a person to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they have intellectual disability in order to avoid being executed. This is an impossibly high standard. It is a standard that is not only inconsistent with the rest of the country, but also within the state: if an intellectual disability determination is being made in Georgia for purposes of education or government assistance, the state doesn’t use a reasonable doubt standard.  They use clinical standards.  The only time a reasonable doubt standard is used is when sentencing a person to death. Georgia State University College of Law Professor Lauren Sudeall’s research shows that not a single person charged with murder and facing the death penalty has been found guilty, but intellectually disabled, in the last three decades. Last year, in an 8-1 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the state’s beyond a reasonable doubt threshold.  

Though it’s decades too late, the abhorrent risk (and practice) of executing disabled people in Georgia could be ending soon. SCHR is supporting a bipartisan piece of legislation, HB 1426, which would lower the standard of proof for determining intellectual disability in capital cases from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “preponderance of the evidence.” Testifying at a hearing in support of the bill last week, Senior Attorney Mike Admirand told the committee “…there is no reason to have a uniquely high burden when the consequences of getting the determination wrong are the difference between life and death.”

Jurors simply don’t have the expert ability to identify someone with intellectual disability, and as Dr. Alyssa Miller of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities testified, there is a wide spectrum of intellectual disability: “…a lot of folks imagine someone who is childlike, and needs near-constant supervision, and that just isn’t true. This makes it nearly impossible to prove [intellectual disability] to a group who might be thinking of outdated stereotypes.” 

The Supreme Court has made clear that it’s unconstitutional to execute people with intellectual disabilities, but Georgia continues to undermine that rule. The state has executed people with intellectual disabilities, and it will do so again as long as this unconstitutional and inhumane standard remains in place.  

As of March 10, HB 1426 is still being considered by the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for live updates and ways you can take action on this and other bills we are tracking during the session.