EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Court of Appeals of Texas Finds Mandatory Life Without Parole Sentences For Intellectually Disabled Defendants Convicted of Capital Murder is Cruel & Unusual Punishment

In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court held that executing minors is "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Subsequently in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment forbids the mandatory sentencing of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.

In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that executions of individuals with intellectual disability are "cruel and unusual punishments" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

Given this, you might expect the argument that is currently being presented in courts.

In Avalos v. State, 2020 WL 7775186 (Tex. App. 2020), 

Johnny Joe Avalos, an adult, intellectually disabled person, pled guilty and was convicted of two counts of capital murder. The State did not seek the death penalty. When the death penalty is not imposed on a person convicted of capital murder, Texas law requires the automatic imposition of a life sentence without parole.

Avalos subsequently appealed, claiming that Texas's mandatory punishment of life without parole violated the Eighth Amendment. The Court of Appeals of Texas, San Antonio, agreed, holding that:

As with juveniles—for whom “Graham and Roper and [the Supreme Court’s] individualized sentencing cases alike teach that in imposing a State’s harshest penalties, a sentencer misses too much if he treats every child as an adult,” Miller, 567 U.S. at 477—so too with the intellectually disabled; for them, the Supreme Court’s decisions in Atkins and its individualized sentencing cases teach that a sentencer misses too much in imposing a State’s harshest penalties if he treats every intellectually disabled person as alike with other adults. See Atkins, 536 U.S. at 316 (explaining that society views intellectually disabled defendants as “categorically less culpable than the average criminal”). Because Texas Penal Code section 12.31(a)(2) automatically imposes life imprisonment without parole, which is the harshest sentence an intellectually disabled person faces, the statute is unconstitutional as applied to intellectually disabled persons based on the combined reasoning of Atkins and the Court’s individualized sentencing cases, which entitle defendants to present mitigating evidence before a trial court may impose the harshest possible penalty.



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