Ronell Wilson was sentenced to death in 2007 and 2013. ()
The death penalty sentence of Ronell Wilson, who was convicted of murdering two police officers, is headed back to the district court for a re-examination of his mental capacity in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on capital punishment.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit remanded United States v. Wilson, 13-3566-cr, to Eastern District Judge Nicholas Garaufis (See Profile) to address “whether it needs to consider evidence of Wilson’s adaptive deficits given Wilson’s IQ scores.”
Judges Dennis Jacobs (See Profile), Chester Straub (See Profile) and Christopher Droney (See Profile) said Garuafis is free to conduct additional fact-finding if warranted, but it expressed no opinion on if or how the Supreme Court case of Hall v. Florida, 134 S. Ct. 1986 (2014) affected the judge’s original analysis.
In Hall, the Supreme Court held 5-4 that Florida’s IQ score cutoff for deciding whether mentally disabled individuals should be kept off of death row was too rigid. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said a person’s IQ score is “best understood as a range of scores on either side of the recorded score” and the cutoff line, where “Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of a 70 on an IQ test,” misses the point that “intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”
Wilson was first sentenced to death in 2007 for the 2003 fatal shooting of undercover detectives Rodney Andrews and James Nemorin on Staten Island.
The Second Circuit affirmed his conviction but vacated the death penalty, faulting both prosecution statements and the absence of a limiting charge by the judge. (NYLJ, July 1, 2010.)
Wilson’s mental capacity was the most heavily-litigated aspect of his case and, on remand from the circuit, Garaufis held a nine-day hearing in December 2012 in which defense lawyers claimed that Wilson was mildly disabled and that executing him would be cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eight Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the seminal case of Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).
Garaufis heard from experts giving conflicting opinions on Wilson’s intellectual capacity before ruling in February 2013 that Wilson was not mentally retarded, holding “Wilson has not satisfied the burden of proving that he more likely than not suffers from significantly subaverage intellectual functioning.”
Garaufis said his decision did not mean that Wilson should receive the death penalty, only that such a sentence would not violate the Federal Death Penalty Act, (FDPA), or the Eighth Amendment.
The judge said “Neither the FDPA nor Atkins mandates a particular definition of mental retardation,” and he was free to consider New York State law, which “ultimately leads the court to rely primarily on clinical definitions of the term” along with expert opinion.
The judge found that, of Wilson’s adjusted IQ scores on eight tests going back to 1989, “all but one put him at 3 points above 70 and “his true IQ score lies in that area.”
A jury during the second penalty phase trial in July 2013 voted for death and Garaufis in September sentenced Wilson to be executed, (NYLJ Sept. 11, 2013), citing his “continuing lack of remorse and disregard for authority,” and noting that he had brawled with guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center and impregnated a female corrections officer.
One of Wilson’s attorneys, David Stern of Rothman, Schneider, Soloway & Stern, said afterward the verdict and death sentence “demonstrates how little we have evolved from Biblical times.”
Wilson appealed to the Second Circuit, where Federal Defenders Barry Fisher and Sean Bolser and solo practitioners Beverly Van Ness and Cathleen Price were appointed as counsel under the Criminal Justice Act. Counsel for the government at the Second Circuit is Assistant U.S. Attorney Celia Cohen.
Garaufis scheduled a conference in the case for July 1.