Man could escape execution due to NC law
Posted January 30, 2012
Goldsboro, N.C. — A man convicted of murder in Wayne County more than 20 years ago could get off death row Thursday because of a North Carolina law that says mentally retarded defendants can't be executed.
If a Wayne County Superior Court judge declares Marvin Williams mentally retarded, he would be the 17th death row inmate to escape execution since the law passed in 2001.
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.
The legal battle became an emotional one Monday as Price's family sat on one side of the courtroom, hoping for what they see as justice, and Williams' family sat on the other side, hoping that his life will be spared.
Price's family and others are concerned that many judges are rubber-stamping the issue, simply letting people off death row. Attorneys who defend death row inmates say that's not the case.
Williams, 50, sat quietly in the courtroom with his mother behind him as attorneys debated whether he fits the definition of mental retardation.
Defense attorneys acknowledged that mental health experts and advocates prefer to use the term "intellectual disability," rather than "mental retardation." However, that is how North Carolina law words it.
"(Williams) meets both criteria of the statute, that he was mentally retarded at the time of the crime, and therefore, the death sentence that was previously entered should be vacated," said defense attorney Glenn Barfield.
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 basic life skills before the age of 18.
Those determinations are up to the discretion of judges and what weight they give to IQ tests. Williams has taken multiple tests and has scored above and below 70.
Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory argued that Williams knew exactly what he was doing when he repeatedly hit Price over the head, dragged his body into a nearby shed and tried to get into the company's safe with a blow torch.
"It might not have shown (he was) a rocket scientist, but I would contend to you that it didn't necessarily show someone who is mentally retarded, either," Vickory said.
The victim's nephew, Jerry Price, spoke at Monday's hearing and asked the judge not to confuse mental retardation with "cold-hearted meanness and laziness and a total disregard for human life."
"Putting someone to death is a very serious issue. There were laws in place in 1989 when Marvin Williams committed this murder. He violated those laws. A jury of his peers convicted him of his crime," Jerry Price said. "There has never been any doubt that he murdered my uncle. To date, he has shown no remorse whatsoever."
Ken Rose, an attorney with the Death Penalty Litigation Center in Durham, says that inmates were removed from death row in about half of the cases where they claimed mental retardation in the past decade.
None of the 16 people taken off death row under the mental retardation statute have been released from prison. 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.