The Arc on Commutation for Death Row Inmate Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz In the Final Days of Obama’s Presidency

Washington, DC – The Arc commends President Obama for commuting Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz’s sentence from death to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Mr. Ortiz’s diagnosis of intellectual disability should have ruled out the death penalty per a 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Atkins v. Virginia. While the Court’s prohibition of the execution of defendants with intellectual disability could not be clearer, many states continue to define intellectual disability in a manner that significantly deviates from clinical standards, resulting in inconsistent application of Atkins and a miscarriage of justice for many defendants.

“With this decision, President Obama not only ensured justice for an individual with intellectual disability, he also affirmed the Supreme Court’s Atkins v. Virginia and Hall v. Florida rulings. We thank him for ensuring that justice was finally served in this case.

“Sadly, this is one of many cases where an individual with intellectual disability was wrongly being sentenced to death despite the protections promised by the Supreme Court.  We have much work to do to ensure access to justice is accessible for all citizens. The Arc remains committed to ensuring the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and we will continue our legal advocacy work to make sure that the Supreme Court ruling on this issue is followed in jurisdictions across the country,” said Marty Ford, The Arc’s Senior Executive Officer of Public Policy.

The Arc has been involved in this case for years, having filed two amicus briefs in support of Mr. Ortiz, the first in 2010 in support of his appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and the second in 2015 in support of his petition for writ of certiorari (request for review of the lower court’s decision) before the United States Supreme Court. Most recently, in December 2016, The Arc submitted a clemency letter to President Obama requesting the commutation of Mr. Ortiz’s sentence.

“In this case, the pursuit of justice was a team effort, and The Arc was a leading player.  At every step of the way, from the circuit court to the Supreme Court, The Arc had Mr. Ortiz’s back, pitching in to draft a key amicus brief and fighting for his rights in support of our legal team. This is the right decision not only for Mr. Ortiz, but for the future of legal advocacy for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Amy Gershenfeld Donnella, attorney for Mr. Ortiz.

Read more about this case on The Arc’s blog.

The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of over 650 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.

Justice For Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz In the Final Days of a Presidency

By Shira Wakschlag | Director, Legal Advocacy & Associate General Counsel for The Arc

“In this case, the pursuit of justice was a team effort, and The Arc was a leading player. At every step of the way, from the circuit court to the Supreme Court, The Arc had Mr. Ortiz’s back, pitching in to draft a key amicus brief and fighting for his rights in support of our legal team. This is a win for not only Mr. Ortiz, but for the future of legal advocacy for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Amy Gershenfeld Donnella, attorney for Mr. Ortiz.

The Arc is thrilled to announce that President Obama has commuted the sentence of Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz—an individual with intellectual disability—from death to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Arc has been involved in this case for years, having filed two amicus briefs in support of Mr. Ortiz, the first in 2010 in support of his appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and the second in 2015 in support of his petition for writ of certiorari (request for review of the lower court’s decision) before the United States Supreme Court. Most recently, in December 2016, The Arc submitted a clemency letter to President Obama requesting the commutation of Mr. Ortiz’s sentence.

In the brief before the U.S. Supreme Court, The Arc argued that:

In implementing this Court’s decisions in Atkins and Hall, both judges and clinicians must carefully evaluate whether a defendant satisfies the clinical definition of intellectual disability according to the consensus of the scientific community…In finding that Mr. Ortiz is not an individual with intellectual disability, the district court mistakenly relied on irrelevant testimony regarding Mr. Ortiz’s adaptive strengths rather than relevant testimony regarding his adaptive deficits, thereby rejecting the scientific community’s well-established guidelines governing intellectual disability. Broad acceptance of the district court’s mistaken reasoning would deprive individuals with intellectual disability of the protections and supports to which they are entitled under state and federal law and the U.S. Constitution.

This is a major victory in protecting the rights of individuals with intellectual disability in the criminal justice system and in fulfilling the promise of Hall v. Florida and Atkins v. Virginia. In Atkins, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the special risk of wrongful execution faced by persons with intellectual disability and banned their execution as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. In its more recent 2014 Hall decision, the Court reinforced its earlier decision that people with intellectual disability not be executed, requiring that consideration of evidence beyond IQ tests be taken into account when determining intellectual disability. While the Court’s prohibition of the execution of defendants with intellectual disability could not be clearer, many states continue to define intellectual disability in a manner that significantly deviates from clinical standards, resulting in inconsistent application of Hall and Atkins and a miscarriage of justice for many defendants.

The Arc has deep sympathy for the family and friends of the victim in this case, and we support appropriate punishment of all responsible parties. The Arc does not seek to eliminate punishment of Mr. Ortiz or others with disabilities, but rather, to ensure that justice is served and the rights of all parties are protected. The Arc is committed to seeking lawful outcomes for people with intellectual disability and will continue working to ensure that the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on this issue are abided by in jurisdictions across the country.

Learn more about The Arc’s legal advocacy work on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The Arc Responds to Florida Supreme Court’s Decision to Vacate Death Sentence for Freddie Lee Hall in Florida

Washington, DC – The Arc released the following statement following news that the Supreme Court of Florida reversed the circuit court’s order in the case Hall v. Florida, a death penalty case concerning the definition of intellectual disability (ID) that Florida uses in deciding whether an individual with that disability is protected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. With this decision Freddie Lee Hall will be taken off death row and his sentence will be reduced to life in prison. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional as it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Today the Supreme Court of Florida showed its commitment to ensuring justice for individuals with intellectual disability. This decision is an affirmation of years of legal advocacy on behalf of Mr. Hall.

“With the original sentencing in Hall’s case Florida was violating the Supreme Court’s Atkins v. Virginia ruling and we are pleased to see justice finally being served. Our hope is that Florida’s decision will serve as guidepost to other states that have similar cases involving defendants with intellectual disability. While we are pleased with Florida’s decision, we also think of other individuals who were unjustly denied Atkins protections and sentenced to death, individuals like Warren Hill, executed in Georgia last year, despite the protections of the Atkins decision.

“The Arc remains committed to fighting for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and we will continue our legal advocacy work to make sure that the Supreme Court ruling on this issue is followed in jurisdictions across the country,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Arc has participated in a number of cases on this issue before the Supreme Court including Atkins v. Virginia. The Arc’s amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with ID. On December 23, 2013, The Arc submitted an amicus brief for the Hall v. Florida case.

The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, Autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, Cerebral Palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of nearly 700 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.

Execution of Warren Hill “Shakes the Foundation of our Legal System for People with Intellectual Disabilities”

Washington, DC – This evening, the state of Georgia executed Warren Hill, a man who experts unanimously determined to have intellectual disability, which should have ruled out the death penalty per a 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Atkins v. Virginia, and a 2014 Supreme Court ruling, Hall v. Florida. There was a stay motion and a petition for a writ of certiorari filed to the U.S. Supreme Court which was denied this evening. Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor voted to stay the execution.

“Georgia’s ability to ignore experts and cross the line drawn by a more than decade-old Supreme Court ruling shakes the foundation of our legal system for people with intellectual disabilities. Just last year, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring justice for individuals with intellectual disability, with their ruling in Hall v. Florida, and it is extremely disappointing that following this decision justice did not prevail in Georgia.

“The facts in this case are clear – experts unanimously agreed that Mr. Hill had intellectual disability, yet the appeals at the state and federal levels were ignored.  The state’s actions in this case are unconscionable,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

Warren Lee Hill, was found by a state court judge to have an IQ of approximately 70 and to meet the criteria for intellectual disability overall by a preponderance of the evidence. Georgia’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” legal standard for proving intellectual disability claims prevents Mr. Hill from being protected by Georgia and federal law prohibiting the execution of people with intellectual disability.

“This is a sad day for our community, and a shameful one for the courts that allowed this unconstitutional execution to take place. Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Hill’s family and his legal team.  The Arc will continue fighting for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and in the aftermath of this case we will only increase our legal advocacy efforts to ensure that the Supreme Court’s decisions are upheld and justice is appropriately served,” said Berns.

The Arc has been involved in this case for years. Nationally The Arc has participated in an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court and written multiple letters urging clemency on behalf of Mr. Hill.

In its 2002 Atkins decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the special risk of wrongful execution faced by persons with intellectual disability (formerly referred to as “mental retardation”) and banned the execution of persons with intellectual disability as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. In its more recent 2014 Hall decision, the U.S. Supreme Court again reinforced its earlier decision that people with intellectual disabilities not be executed, requiring that consideration of evidence beyond IQ tests be taken into account when determining intellectual disability.

The Arc Responds to Denial of Clemency for Warren Hill

Washington, DC – This morning, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles voted to deny clemency in the case of Warren Hill, a man who has an intellectual disability (ID). Mr. Hill’s diagnosis of intellectual disability allows for protections found within the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Atkins v. Virginia and Hall v. Florida. There is a stay motion and a petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. They can still intervene and stay the execution, sparing Mr. Hill’s life.

“A gross miscarriage of justice has been committed in Georgia today. It is extremely disappointing that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles failed to listen to pleas from The Arc, other organizations and experts to commute Mr. Hill’s sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole.  The facts in this case are clear – and the state’s action clearly goes against the U.S. Supreme Court’s previous decisions in Atkins v. Virginia and Hall v. Florida. We hope that the Supreme Court will intervene and stay the execution, they are the last and only chance for justice in this case,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

Warren Lee Hill, was found by a state court judge to have an IQ of approximately 70 and to meet the criteria for intellectual disability overall by a preponderance of the evidence. Georgia’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” legal standard for proving intellectual disability claims prevents Mr. Hill from being protected by Georgia and federal law prohibiting the execution of people with intellectual disability.

The Arc has been involved in this case for years. Nationally The Arc has participated in an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court and written multiple letters urging clemency on behalf of Mr. Hill.

In its 2002 Atkins decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the special risk of wrongful execution faced by persons with intellectual disability (formerly referred to as “mental retardation”) and banned the execution of persons with intellectual disability as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. In its more recent 2014 Hall decision, the U.S. Supreme Court again reinforced its earlier decision that people with intellectual disabilities not be executed, requiring that consideration of evidence beyond IQ tests be taken into account when determining intellectual disability.

Statement from Brian Kammer, Attorney for Warren Hill

“Today Georgia set an execution date for a man who has had intellectual disability since childhood, and whose execution would be unconstitutional. Twice the lower court found Warren Hill to have intellectual disability by the preponderance of the evidence, a widely-used and appropriate standard. All of the states’ experts have agreed, and in fact no expert who has ever examined Mr. Hill disputes that he has intellectual disability. Many prominent leaders in the field of intellectual disability agree that Mr. Hill should not face execution because he is a person with lifelong intellectual disability. The only reason that he is now at risk of execution is that Georgia’s standard – requiring capital defendants to prove they have intellectual disability ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ – is not science-based and inherently denies people like Mr. Hill from receiving the protection which the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Hall v. Florida, ‘Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution.’  Georgia’s standard does not allow that ‘fair opportunity.’ It is unfathomable that Georgia is planning the execution of a man with intellectual disability, who is constitutionally protected from execution.”

-Brian Kammer, attorney for Warren Hill

-January 16, 2015

The execution order can be accessed here: http://bit.ly/1AoNSaR

The Arc Responds to U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Hall v. Florida

The Arc released the following statement following news that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Freddie Lee Hall in the case Hall v. Florida, a death penalty case concerning the definition of intellectual disability (ID) that Florida uses in deciding whether an individual with that disability is protected by the Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional as it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hall. The justices stated that Florida cannot rely solely on an IQ score to determine whether an inmate has ID.  Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that IQ tests have a margin of error and those inmates whose scores fall within the margin must be allowed to present other evidence. Additionally, Justice Kennedy modified the 2002 Atkins decision by adopting the term “intellectually disabled” and abandoning “mentally retarded,” which has previously been used by the court in its opinions.

“Today the Supreme Court reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring justice for individuals with intellectual disability. The clarification of the landmark ruling in Atkins v. Virginia will serve as a tool to ensure justice for individuals with intellectual disability who face the death penalty  in states across the country.  Disability advocates and legal experts across the country will look back to this decision for years to come.

“The Arc is committed to fighting for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and we will continue our legal advocacy work to make sure that the Supreme Court ruling on this issue is followed in jurisdictions across the country,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Hall case centered on whether the state may establish a hardline ceiling on IQ, refusing to consider whether anyone with an obtained IQ above that level may actually have ID, despite the fact that use of such a ceiling undermines the purpose of IQ testing and the professional judgment of the diagnostician, among other things.  In Hall, the Court was asked to address Florida’s decision to draw the line at an IQ of 70.  Based on the professional expertise of two leading professional organizations in the field, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), it is universally accepted that IQ test scores must be interpreted by taking into account the standard error of measurement that is inherent in IQ tests. That means that any IQ test score is best understood as a range, rather than a single score:  a score of 70, for example, is best understood as indicating that the person’s “true” IQ score is most likely between 65 and 75.

In addition to IQ testing, numerous expert evaluations documented Freddie Lee Hall’s disability.  Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins, a Florida trial court found that Hall had ID “all of his life”.  His family recognized his disability in early childhood and teachers repeatedly noted his intellectual disability.

The Arc has participated in a number of cases on this issue before the Supreme Court including Atkins v. Virginia.  The Arc’s amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with ID. On December 23, 2013, The Arc submitted an amicus brief for the Hall v. Florida case.

Through a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Arc established the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) which is addressing, among other critical issues, people with ID on death row and the importance of using an accurate definition for ID within courtrooms across America. NCCJD is creating a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), whose disability often goes unrecognized. Providing accurate, effective and consistent training for criminal justice professionals is critical to ensuring the safety of people with disabilities.

The Arc Applauds Stay of Execution of Robert Campbell, Vows to Continue Legal Advocacy Efforts

Washington, DC – Today, the state of Texas was scheduled to execute Robert Campbell, a man who has an intellectual disability (ID), which should have ruled out the death penalty per a 2002 Supreme Court ruling, Atkins v. Virginia.  But this evening, a federal appeals court halted his execution, mere hours before he was scheduled to receive a lethal injection. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit delayed his execution to allow more time to pursue his legal team’s argument that he is not eligible for the death penalty due to his ID.

“We are grateful that the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Supreme Court’s ruling, saving Robert Campbell’s life. While we can appreciate justice being served, we were far too close to witnessing a grave miscarriage of justice. There are still many questions surrounding this trial, and we hope to hear answers as to why evidence regarding Mr. Campbell’s IQ was withheld until very recently. In a life or death situation, it is disturbing that all the facts were not being presented.

“As a family-based organization, we have great sympathy for the family and friends of the victim.  However, in the case of a defendant with intellectual disability, the death penalty is not an acceptable or fair sentence. The Arc is committed to fighting for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and we will continue our legal advocacy work to make sure that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on this issue is followed in jurisdictions across the country,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

Through a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Arc is developing the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability. This project is creating a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), whose disability often goes unrecognized. Providing accurate, effective and consistent training for criminal justice professionals is critical.

The Arc Responds to the Scheduled Execution of Robert Campbell

Washington, DC – The Arc released the following statement about the scheduled execution of Robert Campbell, an individual with intellectual disability (ID). Campbell is scheduled to be executed tomorrow (Tuesday, May 13) at 6 pm in Texas, despite evidence showing he has ID. It has been reported that the state of Texas and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice withheld two prior IQ tests within the range for ID, showing an IQ of 68 from a test during elementary school, and 71 from his prison records. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional because it violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Robert Campbell’s appeal despite clear evidence showing that he has intellectual disability. To ignore experts and cross the line drawn by a more than decade-old Supreme Court ruling shakes the foundation of our legal system for people with intellectual disabilities.  It is unconscionable that key evidence about Mr. Campbell’s IQ was withheld in this life or death situation. The Arc asks the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to take up this case immediately to ensure that Mr. Campbell’s disability is taken into account and justice can truly be served.

“The Arc is committed to fighting for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and will continue our legal advocacy work to make sure the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on this issue is abided by in jurisdictions across the country,” said Peter V. Berns, CEO of The Arc.

Through a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Arc is developing the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability. This project is creating a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), whose disability often goes unrecognized. Providing accurate, effective and consistent training for criminal justice professionals is critical.

The Arc Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Protect Constitutional Rights of People with Intellectual Disability on Death Row

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Hall v. Florida, a death penalty case concerning the definition of “mental retardation” (or intellectual disability (ID) as it is now called) that Florida uses in deciding whether an individual with that disability is protected by the Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional as it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Florida is clearly violating the Supreme Court’s Atkins v. Virginia ruling and the Court must reaffirm its commitment to the rights of people with intellectual disabilities in our criminal justice system. Freddie Lee Hall has an intellectual disability, and Florida’s effort to flaunt the professional standards on IQ testing to end someone’s life needs to be stopped by the highest court in our country. It is immoral and unjust,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Hall case centers on whether the state may establish a hardline ceiling on IQ, refusing to consider whether anyone with an obtained IQ above that level may actually have ID, despite the fact that use of such a ceiling undermines the purpose of IQ testing and the professional judgment of the diagnostician, among other things. In Hall, the Court has been asked to address Florida’s decision to draw the line at an IQ of 70. Based on the professional expertise of two leading professional organizations in the field, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), it is universally accepted that IQ test scores must be interpreted by taking into account the standard error of measurement that is inherent in IQ tests. That means that any IQ test score is best understood as a range, rather than a single score: a score of 70, for example, is best understood as indicating that the person’s “true” IQ score is most likely between 65 and 75.

In addition to IQ testing, numerous expert evaluations have documented Freddie Lee Hall’s disability. Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins, a Florida trial court found that Hall had ID “all of his life”. His family recognized his disability in early childhood and teachers repeatedly noted his intellectual disability. The lower court records also include findings of severe and violent abuse of Hall during his childhood.

The Arc has participated in a number of cases on this issue before the Supreme Court including Atkins v. Virginia. The Arc’s amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with ID. On December 23, 2013, The Arc submitted an amicus brief for the Hall v. Florida case.

Through a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Arc is developing the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability. This project is creating a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, whose disability often goes unrecognized. Providing accurate, effective and consistent training for criminal justice professionals is critical.