Man with intellectual disability freed from death sentence

An Arkansas man sentenced to death for murdering a teenage girl in Texas 25 years ago has been granted his petition for habeas corpus after a federal judge determined him to be ineligible for the death penalty due to his intellectual disability. The man will be resentenced in Texas.

Bruce Carneil Webster was convicted and sentenced to death in on several counts, including kidnapping, for the rape and murder of 16-year-old Lisa Rene. Webster was subsequently denied a motion to vacate his conviction and sentence, as well as a motion for relief and an application for an order authorizing a successive § 2255 proceeding.

Webster, who is housed at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, was further denied a petition for habeas corpus by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in 2013. In his petition, Webster challenged his death sentence based on “previously unavailable” evidence from Social Security records that he alleged established his intellectual disability, therefore making him ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) and Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. 701 (2014).

Although the Southern District and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals denied his petition, en banc review was granted, and the en banc court reversed the decision and remanded for further proceedings.

On remand, the southern district court concluded that the alleged Social Security records were, in fact, unavailable to Webster and his counsel at the time of trial despite the trial counsel’s due diligence. Those records indicated that when Webster applied for social security benefits – just one year before the crime – he was examined by two psychologists and one physician, all of whom found him to be “mentally retarded and antisocial.” Test results also concluded Webster had a full-scale IQ of 59, and psychologist Charles Spellman concluded Webster’s “intellectual functioning was quite limited.”

Psychologist Edward Hackett found Webster’s behavior to be “somewhat bizarre” and that he was not capable of managing his own benefits. Additionally, the Social Security records contained a letter from a Special Education Supervisor from Webster’s former school, stating that he had been involved in special education classes. Webster’s application for benefits itself, the 7th Circuit found, was “rife with errors in syntax, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and thought.”

Southern District Senior Judge William T. Lawrence concluded Tuesday that Webster met his burden and showed by a preponderance of the evidence that he is intellectually disabled, and therefore granted the petition for habeas corpus in Bruce Carneil Webster v. Charles Lockett, 2:12-cv-86.

Lawrence concluded Webster had significant limitations in intellectual functioning based on seven different IQ tests taken between 1992 and 2018 with varying results ranging from 59 to 65 — two standard deviations or more below the population mean.

“The scores themselves were obtained over a period of twenty-five years and consistently demonstrate that Webster has an IQ that falls within the range of someone with intellectual deficits,” Lawrence wrote. “In reaching this conclusion, the Court finds that the evidence does not support a finding of malingering such that the tests are invalid.”

The federal judge rejected arguments that Webster was motivated to underperform on the testing as part of his application for Social Security benefits.

Likewise, the federal judge found Webster had significant limitations in his adaptive functioning based in part on the formerly unavailable Social Security records that revealed Webster to be “barely literate,” based on his responses.

“The Court finds that Webster has met his burden and shown by a preponderance of the evidence that he is intellectually disabled, as he meets all three prongs of intellectual disability: 1) Webster has intellectual-functioning deficits; 2) Webster has adaptive deficits; and 3) the onset of these deficits was while Webster was a minor,” the federal judge concluded. “In making this ruling, the Court has carefully considered the totality of the evidence and weighed the testimony in accordance with its credibility assessment of each witness.”

It therefore granted Webster’s habeas corpus petition and vacated his death sentence, ordering resentencing to take place in the Northern District of Texas.

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