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Alabama death row inmate cannot be executed due to intellectual disability, appeals court rules say


An appeals court has ruled the state of Alabama cannot execute an intellectually disabled man who was sentenced to death for the murder of a man in 1997, upholding a lower court ruling.

The decision of the Eleventh United States Court of Appeals on Friday means that Joseph Clifton Smith, 53, cannot be executed unless the decision is overturned by the United States Supreme Court.

In a statement released after the appeals court’s decision, Amanda Priest, communications director for Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, said, “Smith’s IQ scores have consistently placed his IQ above that of a person with an intellectual disability. The attorney general believes his death sentence was both fair and constitutional.

“The Attorney General disagrees with the Eleventh Circuit’s decision and will seek review by the United States Supreme Court,” the statement concluded.

In 2021, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that due to his intellectual disability, Smith could not “constitutionally be executed” and overturned his death sentence.

The judge referenced the district court’s finding that “Smith’s intellectual and adaptive functioning problems clearly became apparent before the age of 18,” according to the 2021 appeals court ruling, which was agreed with the lower court.

Smith confessed to murdering Durk Van Dam, whose body was found “in a secluded area near his pickup truck” in Mobile County, southwestern Alabama, according to the court’s ruling on Friday. Smith ‘offered two conflicting versions of the crime’, the ruling says – first admitting he watched Van Dam’s murder, then saying he participated but had no intention of killing the man .

The case went to trial and the jury found Smith guilty, the order says. During his sentencing proceedings, Smith’s mother and sister testified that his father was “a violent alcoholic,” according to the ruling.

Smith had struggled in school from the first grade, according to the order, leading his teacher to label him an ‘underachievers’ before undergoing an ‘intellectual assessment’, which gave him a score of IQ of 75, the court said. . When he was in fourth grade, Smith was again tested and placed in a learning disability class – at the same time his parents were going through a divorce, the court heard.

“After this placement, Smith developed an unpredictable temper and often got into fights with his classmates. His behavior became so troublesome that his school put him in an ’emotionally conflicted class’,” the leader says.

Smith then failed grades seven and eight before dropping out of school altogether, according to the ruling, and he then spent “much of the next fifteen years in prison” for burglary and receiving stolen property.

One of the witnesses at Smith’s hearing in district court to determine whether he had a developmental disability was Dr. Daniel Reschly, a board-certified school psychologist, according to the ruling.

The court ultimately determined that Smith “has significant deficits in social/interpersonal skills, self-reliance, independent home living, and functional academics,” the ruling states.

In its conclusion, the appeals court wrote: “We find that the district court did not clearly err in finding that Smith is developmentally disabled and, therefore, that his sentence violates the eighth amendment. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s judgment quashing Smith’s death sentence.

“This case is an example of why process is so important in habeas cases and why we shouldn’t be rushing to enforce death sentences – the only form of punishment that cannot be reversed,” Smith’s Federal Public Defender’s Office said in a statement. after the decision of the Court of Appeal.

“This same district court originally denied Mr. Smith an opportunity to be heard, and it was an Eleventh Circuit decision that granted a hearing that created this remedy,” the statement said. .


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