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Mental Capacity May Keep Convicted Killer Off Death Row

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RALEIGH, N.C. — This week, lawyers in a Raleigh courtroom are debating the mental capacity of a convicted killer. It is a debate that could mean the difference between life and death.

Last week, a jury convicted Armando Ortez of stabbing a Raleigh Laundromat owner to death in July 2002. Now, they must decide if he is mentally retarded. By law, a person who is mentally retarded is defined as someone with an IQ of 70 or below, who had poor life skills at an early age.

Dave Richard is with The Arc of North Carolina, an advocacy group for the mentally retarded. In 2001, his group helped get a law passed prohibiting the state from executing the mentally retarded.

"The process is never going to be perfect in terms of how you make that decision, but we think that's the way most people in North Carolina feel and that this is the best way we can find to make that decision," Richard said.

Defense attorneys contend Ortez has an IQ of 65. However, a state psychologist testified that Ortez scored 77 on their IQ test and demonstrated he could function at a normal level.

Dr. Charles Bance, a forensic psychiatrist at Dorothea Dix, observed Ortez for two months. He said while at Dix, Ortez played games like chess with patients and staff. Bance asked Ortez to explain how chess is played to see if he really understood the game.

"That to me was amazing. It was an excellent description of the strategy of playing chess and it's not at all something I would have expected from someone who is mentally retarded," Bance said. "It's my opinion within reasonable psychiatric certainty that I do not think Mr. Ortez is retarded."

If jurors find that Ortez is mentally retarded, he will be sentenced to life in prison. If jurors decide Ortez is not mentally retarded, then they will decide whether he deserves the death penalty.

North Carolina is one of 25 states that do not allow inmates with mental retardation to be executed. Most states consider the cutoff to be an IQ of 70 or below. Several states require a defendant's mental status to be determined before trial.


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