7th Circuit vacates intellectually disabled killer’s death sentence

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated the death sentence of a federal death row inmate convicted of murdering a teen girl. The condemned man has spent years claiming he is intellectually disabled, and the appellate court agreed, citing evidence withheld by the government during his trial.

Bruce Webster was one of five men involved in a marijuana ring and was indicted in 1994 for the kidnapping and 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. Webster convicted and placed on death row two years later.

The 7th Circuit granted the Terre Haute death row inmate’s 2241 petition in 2015 only after the court agreed to rehear the case en banc and only by a close 6-5 vote.  The majority reversed the lower court, finding Webster should be allowed to present evidence supporting his argument that he has an intellectual disability.

The Southern Indiana District Court found that Webster met all three criteria to qualify as intellectually disabled, leaving him, therefore, ineligible for the death penalty. The government subsequently appealed.

Regarding Webster’s intellectual disability, the 7th Circuit concluded that it saw no clear error in the district court’s finding that Webster suffers from intellectual deficits. Specifically, it noted “every one of Webster’s nine I.Q. scores over 27 years falls below 75 — with many falling well below that number.”

“The district court found no evidence of malingering on any of these tests — before or after Webster’s murder of Lisa Rene,” the 7th Circuit wrote.

It likewise declined to disturb the district court’s finding that Webster exhibits adaptive deficits in one of the three adaptive domains — “all that is needed for the adaptive functioning analysis.”

“Having demonstrated substantial deficits in intellectual functioning and adaptive functioning (at the very least in the conceptual domain) as well as an onset of the deficiencies before the age of 18, Webster has carried his burden of proving that he is intellectually disabled and therefore constitutionally ineligible to remain under a death sentence,” the 7th Circuit wrote.

The 7th Circuit also concluded that there was no clear error in the district court’s determination that Webster’s trial counsel, Larry Moore, was duly diligent.

“The government begs to differ, insisting that Moore’s account — root and branch — is implausible. What most troubles the government is that Moore’s account of his own diligence has grown in clarity and detail despite the passage of substantial time — a result at odds with the workings of human memory, at least as the government would have it. But the district court heard and considered the government’s position and responded with findings that are plenty reasonable and reflect no clear error,” Circuit Judge Michael Scudder wrote for the 7th Circuit.

But because the district court’s findings — that Moore’s testimony was credible and supported by contemporaneous documentary evidence — are not “internally inconsistent or implausible,” the 7th Circuit concluded that it would not upset them.

The panel also addressed the “stream of frustration over Webster receiving relief in federal court in Indiana after years of proceedings that had seemed to reach finality in federal court in Texas.” It found that the government’s frustration was well received in one aspect, but not another.

“… (M)uch of the frustration seems aimed at registering disagreement with our 2015 en banc decision holding that Webster had made a sufficient showing to satisfy the safety valve in 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h)(1) to pursue the prospect of relief in the district court in Indianapolis. But now is not the time to relitigate our en banc decision,” the 7th Circuit wrote.

Nor do we agree that the remand proceedings in the district court ‘all but swept away the nearly month-long trial and sentencing proceedings involving 50-plus sentencing witnesses and detailed jury findings on Webster’s intellectual functioning that took place in the Fort Worth trial court.’ Remember the reason for the remand: the government, in particular the Social Security Administration, failed to produce documents pre-dating the murder showing that Webster was mentally retarded. But even more, the evidence from the Texas proceeding was before the district court in Indiana. But so too was substantial other evidence developed by the parties on remand,” it wrote.

The 7th Circuit further noted that the record shows that the district court proceeded with great care on remand, praising the district court by stating that “There is no way to read the transcripts of the proceedings below and not walk away impressed with the care taken by Judge (William T.) Lawrence.”

“Our role is limited. Weighty though the obligation, the question before us is whether the evidence presented on remand leaves us with the definite and firm conviction that the district court’s findings reflect clear error. Having taken our own detailed look at all aspects of the proceedings on remand, we see no clear error anywhere,” it concluded.

The 7th Circuit therefore vacated Webster’s capital sentence in Bruce Webster v. T. Watson, 19-2683. 

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