- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bruce Webster has been on death row for 23 years. Last month he got a stunning reprieve.

A federal judge ruled that new evidence had come to light suggesting Webster has a mental disability, making him ineligible for execution. It’s the first time someone has been saved from the death penalty by a post-conviction diagnosis of mental infirmity from newly discovered evidence, his lawyers say.

“It is so unusual and in many ways unprecedented,” said Steven Wells, an attorney at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney which represented Webster.

Judge William T. Lawrence from the Southern District of Indiana ruled that the records weren’t available to the defense at the time of Webster’s original sentencing, so introducing them now was valid grounds for reconsideration.

Webster was one of five men convicted of kidnapping 16-year-old Lisa Rene from an apartment near Dallas in 1994. They were looking to get revenge on her brother after a $5,000 drug deal went bad. They took Rene to Arkansas where the honor roll high school student was beaten, raped and buried alive, according to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Webster and one of the other men were convicted and sentenced to death. The three others reached plea deals sparing them execution.

At the original trial in 1996, Webster’s attorneys argued their client was mentally challenged, but the government had its own expert witnesses who claimed the defendant was faking his disabilities to escape liability.

Despite four of the 12 jurors thinking the defendant “is or may be mentally retarded,” Webster was sentenced to death.

His lawyers at the time had tried to find government records to back up their disability claim, but failed. More than a decade later, his appellate lawyers were able to get Social Security records showing Webster had applied for disability benefits a year before the murder, and had been deemed disabled because of a low IQ and psychological deficiencies.

The prior records would have countered the government’s claim Webster had faked his mental evaluations while on trial.

After looking back over Webster’s evaluations from the Social Security records, Judge Lawrence ruled executing him would run afoul of the Constitution under a 2002 ruling from the Supreme Court, which held the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment prevents putting persons with mental disabilities to death.

In that dispute, Atkins v. Virginia, the defendant had IQ scores around 59. Webster’s scores ranged from 48 to 77.

“The scores themselves were obtained over a period of 25 years and consistently demonstrate that Webster has an IQ that falls within the range of someone with intellectual deficits,” Judge Lawrence ruled.

The government argued Webster had reason to exaggerate his disability, but the judge rejected that, pointing to testimony from a psychologist who said faking low scores over such a long period of time would be “extremely difficult.”

John Donohue III, a law professor at Stanford University, said generally the threshold for intellectual disability is around 70.

“The court has said even a little bit higher might still constitute sufficient mental disability. Clearly this is a very, very low level intelligence and the court has said that for a host of reasons if you are that mentally disabled you’re not going to be able to be executed,” he said.

Mr. Donohue noted a small amount of the population — only about 2.5% — are considered intellectually deficient. But he said within that small group, there tends to be a higher proportion of crime committed, so the Atkins ruling “does have some real significance.”

But Sheri Lynn Johnson, a law professor at Cornell University, doubted the ruling will open floodgates for other death row inmates.

She said most times an intellectual disability finding comes up after trial, it’s a matter of ineffective lawyering. In this case, the lawyers weren’t at fault, but new evidence arose, she said.

The government has until October to appeal Judge Lawrence’s ruling.

Webster is on death row in Indiana, which is why he heard the appeal. But a new sentencing would happen in the federal court in the Northern District of Texas, where the kidnapping occurred.

Erin Dooley, the public affairs officer for U.S. attorney there, said they are evaluating their options.

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