Friday, April 13, 2007
High Court Rejects Ruling Limiting Judges’ Ability to Find Defendant Mentally Retarded in Capital Case
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A trial judge has discretion in determining the significance of IQ scores as a means of deciding whether a defendant in a capital case is mentally retarded, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
Overturning a ruling by the Fifth District Court of Appeal, the justices said Tulare Superior Court Judge William Silveira Jr. was within his authority in barring prosecutors from seeking the death penalty for an accused killer, even though the man’s “Full Scale IQ” tested above the range of retardation.
The defendant, Jorge Junior Vidal of Delano, is one of several men who were charged with the 2001 torture-killing of 17-year-old Eric Jones. Some of the defendants were convicted in earlier proceedings and are now imprisoned.
Vidal tortured Jones, who had allegedly tried to steal Vidal’s car, by stripping an electrical cord, taping the wires to the victim’s fingers, and plugging the cord into an outlet, prosecutors said. Witnesses in the earlier trials testified that Jones was also sodomized, beaten, and shot multiple times before he died and his body was dumped in a field in southern Tulare County, according to press accounts of the case.
After the prosecutor announced he would seek the death penalty, Vidal moved to bar the death sentence under Atkins v. Virginia, (2002) 536 U.S. 304, banning execution of the retarded.
Following Atkins, California enacted procedures to implement the ban, set out in Penal Code Sec. 1376. Among other things, the statute allows the defendant to choose whether to have the issue decided by a judge following a pretrial hearing or by a jury after the guilt phase of the trial.
Vidal’s defense opted for a pretrial hearing, at which psychologists disagreed as to whether he met Sec. 1376’s test of whether he suffered from “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning.”
The experts reviewed results of several IQ tests administered to Vidal between 1980, when he was an 11-year-old public school student, and 2003, when he was tested by one of the defense experts. The results showed that Vidal’s scores on the verbal portion of the exam were consistently within the range of mental retardation, while his non-verbal scores varied between average and high average and his Full Scale IQ—the average of the verbal and non-verbal scores—varied between borderline retardation and average.
The defense experts cautioned that the Full Scale IQ score is not a good measure when the differences between the Verbal IQ and the non-verbal score, or Performance IQ, is significant. The prosecution expert disagreed, opining that Vidal’s Full Scale IQ showed that he was not retarded.
Based on the testimony of the experts and a few lay witnesses, Silveira found that Vidal was mentally retarded within the meaning of Sec. 1376. The Verbal IQ scores, the judge found, established that he had a “severe lack of verbal ability” that was significant in applying Atkins because it went to “issues of premeditation, deliberation, appreciation of concepts of wrongful conduct, ability to think and weigh reasons for and not for doing things and logic [and] foresight.”
The Court of Appeal reversed, a divided panel holding that the Full Scale IQ score must be treated as the primary determinant of whether a defendant is “significantly subaverage” intellectually, and ordered the trial court to reconsider.
But Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for the high court, said the Fifth District erred in treating the significance of the test scores as a matter of law, rather than a factual question to be resolved by the trial court in each case, subject to review under the substantial-evidence test.
“[W]e are not faced here with a question of admissibility of disputed evidence but with the question whether, when both sides of a scientific dispute have been presented by expert testimony, an appellate court may declare the debate’s winner as a matter of law,” Werdegar explained.
The justice noted that the Legislature has not defined “general intellectual functioning” nor “mandated primary for any particular measure of intellectual functioning,” leading to the conclusion that the issue must “be resolved in each case on the evidence, not by appellate promulgation of a new legal rule.”
The court sent the case back to the Court of Appeal to resolve any remaining appellate issues, but urged that court to “bear in mind the substantial delay of trial already incurred.”
The case was argued on appeal by Deputy District Attorney Barbara J. Greaver and Deputy Public Defender William G. Mueting, both of Tulare County. Amicus briefs were filed on behalf of the attorney general and the California District Attorneys Association in support of the prosecution and for California Attorneys for Criminal Justice supporting the defendant.
The case is People v. Superior Court (Vidal), 07 S.O.S. 1781.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company