A Man With Mental Disabilities Is Getting Executed Today: Why We Should All Be Concerned

Later today, Marvin Wilson, 53, is scheduled to die by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas. Nearly twenty years ago, he was allegedly involved in the kidnapping and shooting of a police drug informant. He’s been on Death Row since 1998. Wilson is cognitively impaired—”mentally retarded,” as attorneys and the general media typically describe him.

If you are anti death-penalty, you already care about this case. If you are parent to a child with intellectual disability, however, you should definitely care.

Marvin Wilson

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that “the mentally retarded should be categorically excluded from execution.” It basically left it up to states to determine who fell under that definition. Wilson has an IQ of 61—reportedly the mental age of a 6-year-old. A doctor diagnosed him with having “mental retardation.” Wilson’s lawyers have said he reads and writes below a second-grade level, and has been unable to manage his finances or hold down a job. His sister has said he remained “childlike” as an adult, one who sucked his thumb at the birth of his child. His attorneys have suggested additional DNA testing needed to be done to verify he is, in fact, the murderer. State lawyers have contended that Wilson’s IQ test was inaccurate, and that other tests have shown his IQ to be above 70 (the minimum competency standard). They claim he was an adept criminal who dealt in drugs and street gambling. They know there is intellectual disability; they just don’t think he’s disabled enough.

The story has become a hot rod for those opposed to the death penalty (Wilson’s injection will be the seventh in Texas in 2012). It’s been a point of debate about a state’s right to interpret law and define what is and isn’t considered “mental retardation.” It’s also become a humane cause for concern, this executing of a man who very well may not have known full well what he was doing.

As I’ve mulled over Wilson’s fate, I’ve wondered about potential prejudice against a man with mental disability.

“Mentally retarded,” the longtime medical term to describe those with cognitive impairment, has morphed into a slur. “Retard” is now a synonym for “loser” and “stupid.” The word perpetuates the idea that those with intellectual disability are lesser human beings than the rest of us. All this is why, in 2010, Congress banned the words “retarded” and “retardation” from mention in federal health, education and labor laws; the preferred wording is “intellectual disability.”

“Mental retardation” is a defunct and derogatory term. And yet, Texas newspapers and TV stations have continuously lobbed it around to describe Wilson. I’ve cringed every single time I’ve seen the words crop up in my Google Alert (most recently: “Killing the retarded no big deal in Texas”).

Is it possible this depiction of Wilson as “mentally retarded” somehow swayed the jury not to pardon him because of his mental capacity but to convict him for it? What would it matter, some might have thought, if a man who may have committed murder but is clearly not a worthy human being was put to death?
These are the thoughts that cross your mind when you have a child with intellectual disability, as I do.
These are the words that make you fear for the way the world views your child.
And today, these are the concerns I have about the pending death of Marvin Wilson, a man whose fate might have in party been sealed because of his intellectual disability.
From my other blog:

Would you call my child a retard?

If you ask people not to use the word “retarded” 
Photo: Lethal injection room, Wikimedia Commons; Wilson, AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice file

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  1. by Mary

    On August 8, 2012 at 6:59 am

    Um, first of all he kidnapped and killed an informant. ‘nuf said..

  2. by mary

    On August 8, 2012 at 7:05 am

    thanks for deleting my comment apparently im not the cuddly libral hippy that this site seems to promote. no wonder i left this site. lets all let the killer go free because he doesnt know any better, who cares if its a cop he kills next time or an innocent kid. is that the comment you were looking for because my coffee has seemed to kick in a bit here so my common sense is awake and its saying he is a kidnapper and murderer and there is no place in society for him.

  3. by Jess

    On August 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Wow Mary, I don’t think this has to do with letting a killer go free. The objection is to subjecting a person to the death penalty who is mentally not there enough to even read or write past a 2nd grade level!! No 6 year old would ever be put on death row!

    You missed the entire point of the article.

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  5. by rjc

    On October 18, 2012 at 7:34 am

    so it’s ok to kidnap and shoot someone if you have mental disabilities? He did the crime now he needs to pay for it.

  6. by Janie

    On October 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Oh jess! No 6 year old would kidnap and murder someone. I think YOU missed the entire point of the case – screw the article! This is a man who knew enough to flunk IQ tests when he found out the first few he took (which showed his IQ over 70) would allow the death penalty. It was only after he found out that the law would protect him if he was retarded that he suddenly began flunking the IQ tests. Instead of reading a very biased article that is not concerned for this animals victim or his victim’s family and friends but rather that someone dared to call him retarded, why don’t you do some research, read some of the court papers, then stop protecting murderers who deserve to fry!