NC law could get 17th killer off death row
Posted January 12, 2012
Updated January 13, 2012
Goldsboro, N.C. — A North Carolina law passed in 2001 that says mentally retarded defendants can't be executed has allowed 16 inmates to get off death row. A 17th man could escape execution when his case goes before a Wayne County Superior Court judge on Jan. 30.
The law also applies to other states, since the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision, after North Carolina's law passed, banning the execution of people with mental retardation.
Marvin Williams killed Theron Price, a World War II veteran and security guard at Dewey Brothers in Goldsboro, where both men worked, during a robbery in 1989. Price died of blunt head trauma, and Williams was sentenced to death.
"He had dragged my uncle into a tool shed to try to hide the body, and he tried to wipe his fingerprints," said Price's nephew, Jerry Price. "He was thinking about what he was doing, and then he went back to try to get in the safe while my uncle was laying there dying."
Price's family says it recently learned about an upcoming hearing for Williams and that there’s a good chance he will get off death row because his attorneys say there is evidence that he is mentally retarded.
Under North Carolina law, a judge can declare a person mentally retarded if he or she scores 70 or below on an IQ test and shows poor functioning before the age of 18. As a result of that law, a slew of defense attorneys filed motions on behalf of their clients on death row, trying to get their sentences commuted to life.
Ken Rose, an attorney with the Death Penalty Litigation Center in Durham, says that, in the past decade, in about half of the cases where defendants claimed mental retardation, they were removed from death row.
Jerry Price says he believes judges are rubber-stamping the issue and simply letting people off death row. Attorneys who defend death row inmates say that is not the case.
“I don't like the idea of someone being put to death, but when I think about that, I think about my uncle lying there alone, and the only person he had with him was the person who had killed him,” Jerry Price said.
Jerry Price said it’s his understanding that Williams has scored above 70 on some IQ tests.
“And that's what I'm confused about,” he said. “It was indicated to me that he may have had scores between 40 and 80, so which one do you choose?”
If a person takes multiple tests, a judge must then decide which score is weighed most heavily.
“Judges must make factual decisions and, sometimes, with conflicting evidence, with mixed scores,” Rose said.
Since getting word of the hearing in late November, Jerry Price says he has learned everything he can about his uncle's case and others like it. He believes many families are in his position in North Carolina and are given little notice about the upcoming hearing and little hope. The Price family was given one week's notice before the hearing, which was eventually continued to January.
“I guess I'm irritated that the victims and their families are kind of on the sidelines of all this stuff,” Jerry Price said.
Rose, who does not represent Williams, agrees with Jerry Price that Williams has a good chance of being removed from death row.
“Mr. Williams has a very strong case, from what I know,” Rose said. “I'm not his attorney. I'm not an expert on his case. I know he had a score several points below 70 and a history of severe limitations in adaptive behavior.”
Jerry Price and his family would like to get the issue behind them so they can concentrate on their loved one's real legacy.
“He had served his country for 20 or so years,” Jerry Price said. “And he was protecting the company that he had sworn to protect, just like he had served in the military and served our country.”
Rose said he understands that victims' families may have a hard time with these cases.
“I think that we need to be very sensitive about the justifiable feelings of anguish the family members of victims feel,” he said.
Another issue is that if Williams gets off death row, there's a good chance he would be eligible for parole because he was sentenced under old sentencing laws. However, he still has another 30-year sentence for robbery that he would have to serve.
Rose says it is very unlikely he would be out any time soon. He also says none of the 16 people taken off death row under the mental retardation statute have been released from prison.