Opinion: Texas almost got away with killing an intellectually impaired man

Huntsville Unit
The Huntsville “Walls” unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit, where the death chamber is located.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

In 2003, lawyers for a condemned murderer named Robert James Campbell asked the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for any information the state had on their client’s intellectual capacity. A department lawyer replied that “inmates sentenced to death receive no intellectual testing upon incarceration,” but that corrections officials had a single record from an unrelated 1990 conviction that put Campbell’s IQ at 84. Which was significant, because the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled the year before in Atkins vs. Virginia that people with IQs below 70 could not be executed.

It turns out someone in the corrections department lied. Corrections officials had tested Campbell when he arrived on death row in 1992 and measured his IQ at 71, within the margin of error to make the case that he was intellectually impaired and ineligible for the death penalty. The Harris County district attorney’s office in Houston, which had prosecuted Campbell, also possessed subpoenaed school records that pegged Campbell’s IQ at 68 when he was in third grade, and other evidence -- including the fact that Campbell failed nearly all of his classes -- of an intellectual handicap.

So there were people in the Texas legal and corrections system -- which has executed more people than any other state since 1976 -- who knew the state was likely going to kill a man in violation of his constitutional rights. Even after Campbell’s lawyers discovered the test scores, state court decisions that focused on process over justice nearly led to Campbell’s execution on Tuesday.

Fortunately, the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay just a couple of hours before Campbell was to die, finding that Texas officials gave Campbell’s lawyers “incorrect and incomplete information.” More significantly, the court said that “the 1992 test, which the department failed to disclose following Campbell’s attorney’s request for ‘any and all intellectual functioning tests,’ was evidence of intellectual disability.” Evidence state officials did not turn over. And, as it turns out, the state had no supporting documentation -- not even the name of the test -- for that 1990 IQ test that seemed to put Campbell well above the constitutional threshold.


The court found that “Campbell and his attorneys have not had a fair opportunity to develop Campbell’s claim of ineligibility for the death penalty” and issued the stay to give them that chance. It’s a legal fight I hope they win.

This is neither to defend Campbell’s actions nor to discount his crime. In a journalism career that spans 40 years, I’ve spent countless hours with relatives of murder victims -- parents, spouses, children -- and know the anguish they feel. In this case, Campbell and a friend grabbed Alexandra Rendon as she was pumping gas, hauled her off to a remote area where she was raped, and where Campbell then shot her in the back. It was an ugly crime, and Campbell and his partner deserve neither sympathy nor freedom (though it should be noted the partner was paroled two years ago after serving nine years of a 35-year sentence).

But Campbell should not be executed. Setting aside my blanket opposition to the death penalty, the now-available evidence indicates that Campbell’s intellectual disability makes him ineligible for the death penalty, and both his lawyers and the courts should have had that evidence years ago. Through either gross incompetence or willful malfeasance, that information was withheld. 

It is abhorrent that Texas corrections officials and the Texas judicial system were ready to kill a man knowing that the act would violate his constitutional rights. This should, one hopes, spur an investigation into how this critical information about a condemned man’s mental capacities was hidden away from the judicial system, whose responsibility it is to weigh evidence, find guilt and determine levels of culpability. And I hope they find the officials culpable for this near-miscarriage of justice and act accordingly.


It also stands as yet another example of the corruptibility of the death penalty system. We need to shut it down.

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