Intellectual Disability

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Case 1. Assessment of Intellectual Disability and

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Capital Punishment: A Question of Human Rights?

Dr. Eduardo Romaro, a clinically trained forensic psychologist, was retained by the

prosecution to evaluate the intellectual competence of John Stone, a 50-year-old

man convicted of first-degree murder of a guard during a bank robbery. John had

claimed he was innocent throughout the trial. In the state in which the trial was

conducted, individuals convicted of such an offense face the death penalty. John’s

attorney challenged the death penalty option for his client, claiming that the defendant

is intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia

(2002) that the execution of those with intellectual disability (formerly known as

mental retardation) is unconstitutional. Dr. Romaro had worked with the prosecution

before on intellectual disability cases, but this is the first time he had been

retained for a capital punishment case. He is personally ambivalent about whether

states should implement the death penalty.

The psychologist meets John in a private room in the prison and administers a

battery of intellectual and adaptive behavior tests with proven psychometric validity

for determining forensically relevant intellectual ability. Just as he ends the formal

test administration, John becomes distraught and appears to be experiencing

an anxiety attack. In his distress the psychologist hears the prisoner repeatedly

asking God for forgiveness for killing the guard and for murdering another person,

who he keeps calling “the boy waiting for the bus.” The psychologist shifts into an

emergency crisis intervention mode to help calm the defendant and rings for assistance.

Dr. Romaro was shocked to hear John “confess” not only to the bank murder

but also to the murder of a “boy waiting for a bus.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition

(DSM-IV-TR) diagnosis of intellectual disability (currently termed “mental retardation

developmental disability”) requires that individuals demonstrate significantly

sub-average intellectual functioning, impairments in adaptive functioning,

and onset before 18 years of age. Similarly, the state standard for intellectual disability

includes a developmental history of intellectual impairment. Prior to testing,


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Intellectual Disability was first posted on March 26, 2020 at 5:15 am.
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