Split 7th Circuit allows death penalty challenge asserting intellectual disability

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A killer sentenced in Texas and awaiting execution on federal death row in Terre Haute will be allowed to proceed with efforts to present new evidence of intellectual disability that would make him ineligible for capital punishment, a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals en banc review determined in a 6-5 opinion.

Bruce Webster was one of five men involved in a marijuana ring and was indicted in 1994 for the kidnapping and brutal murder of 16-year-old Lisa Rene. She was taken from an apartment near Dallas, repeatedly raped and found buried in a park in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

In Bruce Carneil Webster v. Charles A. Daniels, 14-1049, Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote for the majority that reversed a 7th Circuit decision rejecting Webster’s efforts to present evidence that he was diagnosed with intellectual disability (referred to as “mental retardation” in the opinion) a year before his crimes. Webster was convicted in the Northern District of Texas of kidnapping resulting in death, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and using a firearm during a crime of violence. He was sentenced to die under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, which had taken effect 12 days before Rene’s murder.

The 7th Circuit panel concluded that new evidence can never satisfy the demanding habeas corpus standard of 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e), but the majority of the en banc panel disagreed. “We conclude there is no such bar to the use of the safety valve found in section 2255(e) for new evidence that would demonstrate categorical ineligibility for the death penalty. We therefore reverse the district court’s judgment and remand for further proceedings,” Wood wrote in the 62-page opinion.

“There is no doubt that Webster and his co-defendants committed a horrible crime. … (T)he only question is what (the facts) show, or do not show, about Webster’s intellectual functioning.” The majority pointed to evaluations placing Webster’s I.Q. below 70, among other things.

The majority concluded further proceedings are necessary to determine if Webster may be entitled to relief from the death penalty. Webster must meet his burden that he is categorically and constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty in accord with U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) and Hall v. Florida, 134 S. Ct. 1986, 1990 (2014). Failing to meet the requirements, Webster’s petition for writ should be denied, Wood wrote.

Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook writing in dissent noted that Atkins and Hall are not favorable to Webster. “Whether Webster is ‘retarded’ was the principal issue at his trial and sentencing. He raised mental shortcomings as a mitigating factor, and four jurors found that they mitigated his culpability, but the jury still voted unanimously for capital punishment.”

Easterbrook also argued Webster’s new evidence did not meet the “clear and convincing” language required for relief. Easterbrook was joined in dissent by Circuit Judges William J. Bauer, Michael S. Kanne, Diane S. Sykes and John Tinder.

“Webster’s argument is fundamentally that the jury, the trial judge, and the Fifth Circuit got the facts wrong, and that he should be allowed an opportunity to relitigate with more evidence,” Easterbrook wrote. The majority’s holding, he wrote, “is unwarranted, and it places this court as a minority of one among the circuits at the same time as we assert final say over all federal capital cases.”


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