Black and white photograph of justice scales sitting on a desk in a courtroom

The Arc Calls for Georgia Supreme Court to Reexamine Unconstitutional Standard for Proving Intellectual Disability in Death Penalty Cases

WASHINGTON – The Arc of the United States, The Arc Georgia, and The Georgia Advocacy Office filed an amicus brief Monday before the Georgia Supreme Court in the case Palmer v. Georgia. The brief explains that Georgia’s requirement that defendants facing the death penalty must prove their diagnosis of intellectual disability “beyond a reasonable doubt” to be exempt from execution creates an unacceptable risk that people with intellectual disability will be executed. Georgia’s burden of proof undermines clinical science and encourages jurors to rely on stereotypes. While the Georgia Supreme Court has previously declined to find Georgia’s standard unconstitutional, more recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court necessitate a different outcome in this case.

“For decades, The Arc has advocated for capital defendants with intellectual disability leading to critical Supreme Court precedent prohibiting their execution. Mr. Palmer and other people with intellectual disability on Georgia’s death row must be afforded their constitutional rights and not be subjected to harmful stereotypes,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc. “Georgia’s ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ burden of proof for establishing intellectual disability in death penalty cases is inconsistent with the clinical process of diagnosing intellectual disability and the risks are deadly.”

“Because of The Arc’s advocacy, Georgia was the first state to prohibit the execution of people with intellectual disability by statute even before the U.S. Supreme Court banned this practice,” said Stacey Ramirez, State Director, The Arc Georgia. “However, Top of Formdespite Georgia’s early leadership on the issue, it is the only state that requires defendants to establish intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt and, since Atkins, not a single defendant in Georgia has been held to be exempt from execution due to intellectual disability. Georgia’s untenable standard violates the Constitution and puts people with intellectual disability at grave risk.”

In Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the special risk of wrongful execution faced by persons with intellectual disability and banned their execution as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Since the Georgia Supreme Court last reviewed its death penalty statute in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that states cannot ignore clinical science or impose procedures that create an “unacceptable level of risk” that people with ID will be executed. In Hall v. Florida (2014), the Court rejected an arbitrary cutoff for IQ scores in making the intellectual disability determination and emphasized the importance of courts consulting clinical standards in their analysis. The Court’s decisions in Moore v. Texas (2017, 2019) strengthened this precedent by emphasizing the need to rely on well-established clinical standards—rather than stereotypes—in making intellectual disability determinations in death penalty cases. The Arc filed amicus briefs in Atkins, Hall, and Moore to educate the court on the clinical diagnosis of intellectual disability and ensure that the important precedent set in Atkins continues to be strengthened and upheld in jurisdictions around the country.