Court of Appeals of Ohio Reverses Death Sentence for Man with Intellectual Disability

Court of Common Pleas, Trumbull County (Courthouses.co)

In this 2021 case, an Ohio Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s denial of death-row inmate Andre Williams’ petition for postconviction relief based on intellectual disability and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

In 1989, 22-year-old Williams was convicted of aggravated murder, aggravated burglary, robbery, and attempted rape and was sentenced to death. In 2003, Williams filed a petition for postconviction relief, arguing that his death sentence was a cruel and unusual punishment based on his intellectual disability. After the trial court denied his petition, he appealed.

Ohio uses a three-part test to resolve claims of intellectual disability in the context of the death penalty. To be granted relief, Williams was required to demonstrate significantly sub-average intellectual functioning, significant limitations in two or more adaptive skills such as communication and self-care, and onset of these deficits before the age of 18.

His school records indicated that Williams exhibited deficiencies in social and adaptive skills from an early age and had been placed in special education courses at the age of six. His family members further testified that Williams had been unable to perform tasks appropriate for his age throughout his lifetime.

Psychiatric testing administered throughout his life produced varied and borderline results. At the trial court hearing, Williams called neuropsychologist Dr. Thomas Sullivan and psychologist Dr. Cynthia Hartung as expert witnesses. Both testified that Williams’s test results reflected mild intellectual disability, and that Williams met the early onset criteria.

The state called psychologist Dr. Carla Dreyer, who found that Williams met the criteria for Borderline Intellectual Functioning, but not for an intellectual disability. She also testified that screening tests administered in adolescence should be considered with caution, because Williams reported using alcohol daily during this period. Her testimony directly contradicted the defense witnesses’ evaluations.

Williams filed a motion to admit additional testimony from a teaching expert in order to explain the meaning of conflicting test results, educate the court on the most recent APA best practices, and explain common misconceptions about intellectual disability. The trial court refused to admit this testimony, concluding that the teaching expert would provide only cumulative evidence.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, determining that the additional witness had the potential to clarify conflicting expert testimony and that the trial court’s decision to exclude this testimony therefore amounted to an abuse of discretion.

The court noted the increased need to educate factfinders in the case at hand given the conflicting expert testimony and that “[c]linical guidelines and best practices in the medical and scientific community are not static and are not common nomenclature in a courtroom.” The court therefore reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded Williams’ case for reconsideration.

Keywords: Death penalty, expert testimony, intellectual disability, Ohio

Citation: State v. Williams, 167 N.E.3d 527 (2021).

This post is the 124th 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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