ASSESSMENT OF INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
ASSESSMENT OF INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT:
Case 1. Assessment of Intellectual Disability and
Capital Punishment: A Question of Human Rights?
Dr. Eduardo Romaro, a clinically trained forensic psychologist, was retained by the
prosecution to evaluate the intellectual competence of John Stone, a 50-year-old
man convicted of first-degree murder of a guard during a bank robbery. John had
claimed he was innocent throughout the trial. In the state in which the trial was
conducted, individuals convicted of such an offense face the death penalty. John’s
attorney challenged the death penalty option for his client, claiming that the defendant
is intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia
(2002) that the execution of those with intellectual disability (formerly known as
mental retardation) is unconstitutional. Dr. Romaro had worked with the prosecution
before on intellectual disability cases, but this is the first time he had been
retained for a capital punishment case. He is personally ambivalent about whether
states should implement the death penalty.
The psychologist meets John in a private room in the prison and administers a
battery of intellectual and adaptive behavior tests with proven psychometric validity
for determining forensically relevant intellectual ability. Just as he ends the formal
test administration, John becomes distraught and appears to be experiencing
an anxiety attack. In his distress the psychologist hears the prisoner repeatedly
asking God for forgiveness for killing the guard and for murdering another person,
who he keeps calling “the boy waiting for the bus.” The psychologist shifts into an
emergency crisis intervention mode to help calm the defendant and rings for assistance.
Dr. Romaro was shocked to hear John “confess” not only to the bank murder
but also to the murder of a “boy waiting for a bus.”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition
(DSM-IV-TR) diagnosis of intellectual disability (currently termed “mental retardation
developmental disability”) requires that individuals demonstrate significantly
sub-average intellectual functioning, impairments in adaptive functioning,
and onset before 18 years of age. Similarly, the state standard for intellectual disability
includes a developmental history of intellectual impairment. Prior to testing,
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