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Supreme Court overturns Texas death sentence

The Supreme Court on Monday overturned the death sentence of a Texas inmate because jurors did not consider evidence including his learning disability.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Supreme Court on Monday overturned the death sentence of a convicted Texas killer because jurors in his trial did not consider his learning disability and other evidence.

The unsigned 7-2 decision is another reproach of Texas, which executes more people than any other state.

Texas courts had turned down LaRoyce Lathair Smith’s appeal of his sentence for the January 1991 killing of a Taco Bell manager during a robbery attempt in Dallas. The victim, 19-year-old Jennifer Soto, was pistol-whipped, shot and stabbed with a butcher knife.

In the ruling, justices cited their decision nearly five months ago in the case of another Texas death row inmate, Robert Tennard, which opened the door to new challenges from several dozen condemned men in Texas who claim they have low IQs and were not given enough chance to present mitigating evidence to a jury.

“There is no question that a jury might well have considered (Smith’s) IQ scores and history of participation in special-education classes as a reason to impose a sentence more lenient than death,” the court wrote in Monday’s decision.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the most conservative justices, disagreed.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist had joined Scalia and Thomas in opposing the outcome of the earlier Texas case. Rehnquist, who has been away from the court since last month while receiving chemotherapy and radiation for thyroid cancer, supported the latest decision though no explanation was provided.

In his appeal, Smith argued that jurors weren’t allowed to consider evidence including that he was 19 at the time of the Taco Bell robbery, that he had a troubled home life and that he had a low IQ and learning disabilities.

A Texas court rejected the claim, saying that wasn’t relevant because there was no link between the murder and his diminished capacity.

The Supreme Court has been critical of prosecutors’ handling of some capital cases in Texas, which last year was responsible for 24 of the 65 U.S. executions.

Also Monday, the justices ordered an appeals court to reconsider whether Texas death row inmate Ted Calvin Cole, known as Jalil Abdul-Kabir, should get a chance to challenge his sentence on grounds jurors did not take into account his troubled childhood and emotional disorders. He was convicted of strangling another man with a dog leash.

Earlier this year, justices lifted inmate Delma Banks’ death sentence and delivered a strong rebuke of Texas officials and lower courts for failing to ensure he received a fair trial. The court said prosecutors hid key information that might have helped Banks’ case.

And last year, the court sided with a black Texas death row inmate, Thomas Miller-El, who claimed prosecutors in Dallas County stacked his jury with whites. The Miller-El case will be reviewed by justices for the second time next month because an appeals court again found that he should face the death penalty.

The Monday cases are Smith v. Texas, 04-5323, and Abdul-Kabir v. Dretke, 04-5876.