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State Can't Just Ignore IQ: 7th Tosses Disabled Man's Death Sent

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 04, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Times are tough for executioners. Society has long moved passed the more flamboyant forms of capital punishment -- hanging, firing squad, guillotine -- and even the remaining methods might amount to torture. That is, if you can even find someone to use them on.

The Seventh Circuit isn't making any executioners' lives easier either. The court threw out the death sentence of a man convicted of killing an Indiana sheriff's deputy. The Seventh tossed the death sentence after the Indiana Supreme Court wrongfully ignored the defendant's low IQ scores and made false assumptions about his intellectual ability based on the fact that he could obtain work.

Shifting IQ Scores

Tommy Pruitt had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death after he shot deputy sheriff Daniel Starnes during a traffic stop. At trial, Pruitt claimed that he had an intellectual disability. Two experts testified on his behalf, focusing on his low IQ and "adaptive functioning." The trial court was not convinced, however, noting that Pruitt was able to work as a carpenter, obtain a license, and fill out applications for employment. The defense represented evidence of Pruitt's disability to the jury at sentencing. The jury was unswayed and sentenced Pruitt to death.

The key to Pruitt's disability wasn't his just IQ, however, it was his schizophrenia. As a child, Pruitt had an IQ of 64, "within the intellectually disabled range," though in several later tests he scored above the disability range. Over time, the IQ test results seemed to change drastically. That change, doctors explained, was largely because of Pruitt's use of antipsychotic medication.

Wrongful Assumptions

The Eight Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments prohibits the execution of the intellectually disabled. What counts as intellectually disabled has never been fully defined by the Supreme Court, however. In Indiana, intellectual disability is found when a defendant has subaverage intellectual functioning and substantial impairment of adaptive behavior. When Pruitt appealed his death sentence to the Indiana Supreme Court, they found that he did not meet that definition, brushing off his IQ scores as "inconsistent" and relying on evidence that he could "fill out applications" and support himself.

That was an unreasonable determination, the Seventh Circuit found. Pruitt's IQ scores were consistently within the range for intellectual disability and only scored within the normal range when on antipsychotic medication. The state cannot simply ignore that evidence.

Further, while IQ tests aren't conclusive, the state cannot use "inaccurate assumptions and select pieces of evidence" to make its determination. That Pruitt was able to obtain employment it is irrational to view that as excluding intellectual disability, the Circuit found. The evidence clearly shows, the court said, that Pruitt suffered from an intellectual disability. It vacated Pruitt's death sentence and remanded for resentencing.

Meaning Pruitt survives, but another executioner goes hungry.

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