Tuesday, August 7th, 2012
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.
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”).