Court Denies Appeal of Defendant Arguing Intellectual Disability Prevented Him from Voluntarily Waiving Right to a Jury Trial

Above: Defendant Ignacio Castellano — Image Source: Illinois Department of Corrections

An Illinois appellate court affirmed the first-degree murder conviction and sentence of Ignacio Castellano on December 31, 2020. Castellano had asserted that his intellectual disability was not addressed at trial and prevented him from being able to knowingly waive his right to a jury trial.

In 2008, when Castellano was 28 years old, he was involved in a physical altercation with four other men. Castellano fatally stabbed one of the men and injured two others.

Castellano was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated battery and was sentenced to 32 years. Castellano submitted a pro se petition for postconviction relief, which was dismissed. He appealed the dismissal.

Castellano argued that his trial counsel “was ineffective for failing to request a fitness hearing” and that “due to an intellectual disability, he did not knowingly waive his right to a jury trial.”

Castellano suffered several head injuries throughout his life. A neuropsychologist’s IQ evaluation found that he had an IQ of 61 and was “functioning intellectually at a level consistent with mild mental retardation.” The neuropsychologist’s report further explained that “His strength is in working memory, which is a common finding among the mild mentally retarded. These individuals often rely on developing a good memory to ‘pass’ for normal by practicing and learning the behaviors they see in others, including verbal behaviors. [Defendant’s] verbal comprehension was in the very low average to borderline range. Processing speed is very low.”

The trial court dismissed Castellano’s petition, stating that his “reliance on the pre-sentence investigation’s claim that his IQ is low is unavailing, as mental retardation in itself does not render a defendant unfit.”

On appeal of the dismissal, the appellate court found that the trial court had informed Castellano of his rights and provided a detailed explanation of the legal proceedings, and that during Castellano’s testimony, he appeared to have “no difficulty in understanding what was asked on direct examination, cross examination, and answering appropriately.”

The appellate court therefore found that trial counsel was not ineffective for failing to request a fitness hearing and that Castellano’s intellectual disability did not prevent him from voluntarily waiving his right to a jury trial. His conviction and sentence were affirmed.

Key words: Illinois, intellectual disability, fitness hearing

Citation: People v. Castellano, 2020 IL App (1st) 170543

This post is the 45th post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.

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Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School