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Pope Declares Death Penalty Inadmissible in All Cases

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ROME — Pope Francis has declared the death penalty inadmissible in all cases because it is “an attack” on the “dignity of the person,” the Vatican announced on Thursday, in a definitive shift in Roman Catholic teaching that could put enormous pressure on lawmakers and politicians around the world.
Francis, who has spoken out against capital punishment before — including in 2015 in an address to Congress — added the change to the Catechism, the collection of beliefs for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
The revision says the church would work “with determination” for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide.
“I think this will be a big deal for the future of the death penalty in the world,” said John Thavis, a Vatican expert and author. “People who work with prisoners on death row will be thrilled, and I think this will become a banner social justice issue for the church,” he added.
Sergio D’Elia, the secretary of Hands Off Cain, an association that works to abolish capital puni…

How Prosecutors are Making Intellectually-Disabled African-Americans on Death Row Smart Enough to Kill

IQ tests have long been plagued by claims of cultural and racial bias. Critics from a wide range of arenas, including academia, psychology, psychiatry and activism have characterized these controversial assessments as ineffective, inappropriate and skewed toward a normative white standard. Still, the tests have endured in many fields, including criminal justice, where they act as a criterion for determining if a person convicted of a capital offense is intellectually competent enough to receive the death penalty given these assessments are commonly acknowledged to offer value in establishing a basic competency. In Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court codified this upon ruling that executing the intellectually disabled violated the Eighth Amendment and qualified as cruel and unusual punishment.

However, in a cruel and unusual legal twist, it is this charge of racial bias in IQ testing that is now being used by a growing number of American prosecutors to ensure more African-American and Latinx capital inmates are put to death.

Referred to as “ethnic adjustments,” this practice automatically boosts IQ scores, often by 5 to 15 points, for African-American and Latinx inmates convicted of capital crimes. To win a death sentence against an accused, prosecutors in at least eight states — Alabama, California, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas — have increasingly resorted to the summoning of expert witnesses who testify to the racial biases of IQ testing. Though these health experts commonly have no interaction with the defendants at any point, they generally argue that such racial bias accounts for the sub-competent performance on previous IQ tests for African-American and Latinx defendants and, therefore, their scores would have likely been higher if not for the bias. Such ethnic adjustments enable the capital sentencing of those who’d otherwise be deemed intellectually unfit.

“In my opinion, ethnic adjustments are outrageous,” said Robert M. Sanger, a prominent trial lawyer and professor of law and forensic science at Santa Barbara College of Law in California. His 2015 article in the American University Law Review was largely responsible for drawing attention to the prosecutorial use of ethnic adjustments. “What these so-called experts do is say that, because people of color are not as likely to score as well on IQ tests, you should, therefore, increase their IQ scores from 5 to 15 points to make up for some unknown or undescribed problem in the test,” explained Sanger, noting there is no scientific, “legal or intellectual basis for this.”

Scientific or not, Sanger has documented numerous cases where such adjustments were employed including Hodges v. State, where the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the legal significance of an African-American defendant’s low IQ score could be discounted after a prosecution expert testified, “IQ tests tend to underestimate particularly the intelligence of African-Americans.” While this claim, in itself, may certainly have merit, Sanger is more concerned with its selective legal interpretation and application.


Source: Atlanta Black Star,  D. Amari Jackson, February 8, 2018


How IQ tests are used to justify the death penalty


Louisiana death row
As a concept, IQ is terrible. The idea that we can reduce intelligence to a simple number, quantifiable in a test, exacerbates inequality in numerous racist, classist, sexist, and ableist ways. Not only do people have worth beyond their measurable cognitive ability, but IQ also routinely awards higher numbers to abled middle- and upper-class white males, reinforcing pre-existing ideologies in the name of "science." Over the last many decades, scholars and activists have pushed back against the regime of IQ testing in all contexts, often successfully.

Now, prosecutors in at least eight states have been hiring experts to testify about the racist use of IQ in order to kill more black and brown men.

The Supreme Court has slowly been carving out exemptions to the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that people with intellectual disabilities could not be executed, but left it up to the states to determine who is or is not eligible for that protection. In 2014, in Hall v. Florida, the court ruled that a state can't use a simple IQ cut-off. Then, in last year's Moore v. Texas, the court ruled that states must consider the best psychiatric and medical information about disability when determining disabled status. Still, IQ testing continues to play a major role, with a threshold of around 70 serving as the cutoff score, below which a person cannot legally be executed.

Here's where "ethnic adjustments" come in. The practice, as documented by attorney Robert Sanger in a 2015 article in the American University Law Review, adjusts IQ scores upward for people of color convicted of capital crimes. According to Sanger, prosecutors in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have all used ethnic adjustments to successfully impose the death penalty on people who otherwise might have been deemed exempt. In his article, Sanger works methodically through case after case, noting in particular the role played by expert witnesses for the prosecution, who testify to the racial biases of IQ testing. In most cases, these experts have never met the person convicted of the capital crime or assessed that person for disability, even as their testimony clears the way for execution.

At the end of his article, Sanger writes, "The idea of racially classifying a person and then using 'ethnic adjustments' to increase his or her IQ score, thereby qualifying that person for execution, is logically, clinically, and constitutionally unsound. In fact, when looked at more closely, it is a wonder how the practice has gone largely unchallenged over the last few years." When I spoke to him over the phone, Sanger confirmed to me that no clear constitutional challenge to the practice has emerged to his knowledge, and certainly not at the United States Supreme Court, or in California, where he practices law.

As I wrote last year, most people on death row are disabled. In reporting the story, I found that this fact presents a challenge to people trying to save lives: Do they fight for total abolition of the death penalty, or do they try to carve out ever-increasing exemptions? Everyone who ends up on death row has experienced a complex panoply of mitigating factors — intersecting disabilities, traumas, and inequities — that led them to be convicted of a capital crime. So anti-death-penalty lawyers look for narrow legal strategies to protect their specific clients, which of course is just what they should do, while slowly pushing new exemptions up through the court process to seek new exculpatory precedents. Atkins, Hall, and Moore — the big three Supreme Court decisions protecting people from intellectual disabilities — are the result of these Herculean efforts.

It's not enough. As Sanger writes, "A more profound conclusion of this article may be that the project of attempting to determine who should live and die is an endeavor lost from the beginning. Perhaps there is no way to devise a just means to implement an unjust result. If the state's executing prisoners is wrong, there can be no right way to do it." He's correct. Racism, ableism, and classism are too deeply held for incremental efforts to effect true change. Even the anti-racist work against the tyranny of the IQ test is being used to perpetuate the state's killing of people of color. Abolition is the only answer.

➻ This story originally appeared as How IQ tests are perverted to justify the death penalty on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.

Source: The Week, David M. Perry, February 12


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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