The court must decide if the defendant of the triple murder is intellectually disabled and not subject to the death penalty

MARSHALL COUNTY, Ala. — Jimmy O’Neal Spencer’s lawyers are asking a judge to bar the death penalty as a possible sentence in his upcoming capital murder trial.

His lawyers say he is intellectually disabled and not eligible for the death penalty, but prosecutors disagree.

Spencer is accused of killing 3 people in Guntersville in July 2018, 7-year-old Colton Lee, his grandmother, Marie Martin, and his neighbor Martha Reliford.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment to execute a person with an intellectual disability, but understanding this can be complex.

News 19 spoke with Huntsville defense attorney Ron Smith, who has dealt with similar death penalty challenges but does not represent Spencer.

Smith said that was a question for the judge in the case, not a jury. He said the guiding standard is which party persuades the court that they have a preponderance of the evidence on the contentious issue of Spencer’s intellectual capacity. Determining intellectual disability has three elements, he said.

“There’s a three-part test, and one is an IQ score of 70 or less, the next is you have significant deficits in adaptive functioning, those are just daily living skills. The last is that these issues had to show up before your 18th birthday,” Smith said.

Prosecutors say Spencer fails to meet the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard for intellectual disability set out in its Atkins decision.

The majority of the United States Supreme Court wrote: “Mentally [disabled] people often know the difference between right and wrong and are fit to stand trial. Due to their impairments, however, they by definition have reduced abilities to understand and process information, to communicate, to ignore mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control their impulses and understand the reactions of others. There is no evidence that they are more likely than others to engage in criminal behavior, but there is ample evidence that they often act on impulse rather than in accordance with a premeditated plan, and that in group, they are followers rather than leaders.

“Their deficiencies do not warrant exemption from criminal sanctions, but they do lessen their personal culpability.”

The defense case argued that Spencer was intellectually disabled. The defense cited his low IQ test scores, poor academic performance and inability to read and write.

“First, he suffers from significantly below average intellectual functioning. On December 10, 2021, he was administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – Fourth Edition (WAIS-IV) by the clinical neuropsychologist certified by the counsel, H. Randall Griffith, and it was determined that he had an IQ score between 53 and 61. The defendant’s Verbal Comprehension Index score (similarities, vocabulary, information) was 61; perceptual reasoning index score (block design, matrix reasoning, visual puzzles) was 69; working memory index score (number of digits, arithmetic) was 60; and processing speed (symbol search, coding of digital symbols) was 56.

“Second, Defendant suffers from significant or substantial deficits in adaptive behavior. Defendant has never learned to read or write and is unmistakably illiterate. Defendant did not attend school past eighth grade and, during his elementary schooling, he attended special education classes. The defendant’s intellectual test result fell into the extremely low range. Finally, the onset of Mr. Spencer’s intellectual disability occurred before the age of 18. Defendant failed several grades in primary school and was placed in special education classes. Defendant has an eighth grade education and never attended school after that time. Defendant did not learn to read and write in school and is illiterate. The defendant had intellectual difficulties in school and quit after eighth grade.”

In its response to defense requests, Spencer’s prosecution argued that Spencer refused to take an IQ test from the state doctor. Prosecutors argue that should bar Spencer from citing the disability claim.

Prosecutors also argue:

“Defendant’s IQ was determined to be 80 upon admission to the Alabama Department of Corrections; “

“Spencer has the ability to fake his answers to the WAIS-IV questions administered to him on December 10, 2021, thereby making his IQ appear lower than it actually is;”

The accused does not suffer from any significant or substantial deficit in his adaptive behavior, as demonstrated by the fact that he supports himself and his girlfriend, that he has the skills necessary to carry out work of automobile bodywork, that he admitted in detail to the crimes, that he planned and carried out the crimes and his stealthy plans to avoid discovery; The best proof of this claim would be the archives of his school, which burned down in the late 1980s, taking these archives up in smoke.

This is a different issue than an insanity defence.

“You can still be convicted, it’s not a not-guilty due to insanity, something like that, all it does is just deal with punishment,” Smith said.

A hearing is scheduled before Spencer’s trial in October and the stakes are high.

“If he is intellectually disabled, he is not qualified or eligible to be executed,” Smith said.

About Jessica J. Bass

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