Tennessee death row inmate Byron Black is intellectually disabled under definitions of a new state law and his death sentence should be commuted to life in prison, District Attorney Glenn Funk wrote. in a filing submitted this week in the case.
Black, 65, was convicted in Davidson County of murdering his girlfriend Angela Clay, 29, and daughters Latoya, 9, and Lakesha, 6, at their home in April 1988.
Prosecutors said he was in a jealous rage when he shot the three. At the time of the murders, Black was on release from work while serving time for shooting and wounding Clay’s estranged husband.
Funk filed the case in response to continued pressure from Black’s defense attorneys to save him from death on the grounds that he is severely intellectually disabled – so much so that he should not be eligible for the sentence. of death.
While it’s rare for a judge to rule against a deal between prosecutors and defense attorneys, the decision won’t be final until Senior Judge Walter Kurtz rules on the case.
Federal public defenders Kelley Henry, Amy Harwell and Richard Tennent also filed a brief before Wednesday’s deadline asking the judge to reset Black’s conviction.
“The factual record compiled since 2004, but never considered by any court, is
overwhelming: Mr. Black is intellectually disabled,” they wrote.
Black’s intellectual disability claim adds to a separate attempt to find he is not fit to be executed, should the courts impose the death penalty.
But if Kurtz comes out in favor of this agreed-upon decision, his case won’t be that close to execution.
The medical expert changes position according to the new standards
The state’s position is largely based on medical testimony from two doctors, one who has changed her mind since she last testified in a case involving Black’s mental faculties.
Black had previously been assessed in 2004 under a now outdated framework that was ruled unconstitutional and struck down by a law passed last year to address the problem in Tennessee.
At the time, expert witness Dr Susan Vaught said he did not meet the standard of the day.
Black meets the new 2021 law’s criteria for a diagnosis of intellectual disability, Vaught now writes, as noted in the defense brief.
“This represents a change in my opinion from 2003, based on new information in her file, the ability to review her performance at multiple points in time across multiple practitioners, changes in scientific knowledge and standards of practice, and changes in diagnostic criteria,” she said. wrote.
The state noted that the framework at the time used “outdated terminology” which was “at least a warning sign that the issue to be determined now – the petitioner’s developmental disability – is not the same as that decided by the 2004 ordinance”.
Black was due to be executed in 2020, but COVID-19 precautions delayed the date twice, the second time indefinitely.
In January, a hearing before Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins was delayed after Funk tested positive for COVID-19 and asked the court to postpone.
Tennessee has created a pathway to appeal the death sentence
The Supreme Court of Tennessee and the Supreme Court of the United States have ruled against the execution of people with intellectual disabilities
In April, Tennessee lawmakers created a law allowing death row inmates like Black to appeal their convictions on grounds of intellectual disability.
Another medical expert submitted a report in August, and an additional report in December, that Black has a developmental disability to a degree that makes him eligible for the exam.
The law sticks to its definition of intellectual disability. Black’s scores were “below average” in all of them, according to a medical report filed by his defense from Daniel A. Martell, a forensic psychologist and neuropsychologist.
Intellectual disability is defined by law as “significantly below average general intellectual functioning”, “adaptive behavior deficits”, and “must have manifested during the developmental period or by the age of ten- eight (18) years”.
It is “clear and unequivocal” that Black meets the criteria for all the guidelines and that his intellectual disability manifested as a young child, Martell wrote.
“There were signs of intellectual deficits quite early in Mr. Black’s life,” he wrote. “He struggled in school and had to repeat a year in second grade – the first clear indication that he was intellectually disabled and therefore struggled academically from an early age.”
The death row inmate’s defense lawyers can ask the trial court to examine the inmate’s mental capacity, but prosecutors are allowed to appeal the decision.
A defendant is not entitled to a second chance to plead the case on grounds of intellectual disability if there is already a decision on the matter.
Funk’s brief this week also states that the 2021 law is so different from that in effect in 2004 that the previous conclusion is irrelevant to the current question.
Martell is no stranger to execution skill assessments. He has previously testified in the death penalty cases of Pervis Payne, Robert Glen Coe, Paul Dennis Reid and Brian Kelley in Tennessee.
In this week’s filing, Funk noted that his office met with the victims’ family members and explained the new law and the experts’ findings.
They still want the state to execute Black.
Executions resume but are delayed by the pandemic
After a nearly two-year hiatus, Tennessee is set to resume capital punishment with five executions scheduled this year and the first next month.
Oscar Franklin Smith, 71, is the next death row inmate to be executed.
Convicted of the 1989 triple murder of his ex-wife and two teenage sons, Smith is expected to die on April 21.
The Supreme Court this month set three new execution dates for inmates in 2022, bringing the total number of executions scheduled for this year to five. They include Smith, Harold Wayne Nichols, Black, Gary Sutton and Donald Middlebrooks.
Tennessee has executed 139 people since 1916. The last was in February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic. The state resumed capital punishment in 2018 after a nine-year hiatus.
Black is expected to be the first black man put to death in the state’s latest round of executions. His execution is scheduled for August 18.
Tennessee’s death row includes a disproportionate number of black inmates. Twenty-five of the 48 death row inmates are black, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections. Tennessee’s population is only 17% black, according to census data.
In previous statements to the Tennessean throughout the case, Henry said Black should not be eligible for execution because he had “lost his mind”, had an IQ of 67, brain damage and schizophrenia.
In Black’s case, previous attempts to review his sentence hinged on whether the undisputed brain damage he suffered is to an extent that would render him unfit for execution.
His defense has struggled to obtain updated medical neuroimaging scans due to limited access to prisons during the pandemic.
Physical ailments also play a part in Black’s ability to be valued. In prison, Henry said, Black’s injuries prevent him from walking, and he “moves around the prison being pushed around in an office chair with wheels”.
His defense also noted that the lack of access to him, other experts and his family under social distancing guidelines added an obstacle to preparing a traditional leniency application.