By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
A Virginia jury had to make a choice before convicting Daryl Renard Atkins of robbing and killing a man for beer money. Atkins and his accomplice blamed the other with firing the eight shots. Should the jury believe Atkins, with an IQ of 59, who bumbled on the witness stand and contradicted the story he gave police moments after his arrest? Or should it buy the story of Atkins‘ accomplice, who’d been smart enough not to talk to detectives, even though his version did not match the evidence. It was a relatively easy choice for jurors. Atkins got death; his accomplice, a life term.
These facts bear remarkable similarities to several L.A. County death-row cases, all of which could now be subject to new appeals based on the U.S. Supreme Court‘s prohibition on executing killers with childlike minds. Over the past several months, in anticipation of a ruling, the Weekly examined all 183 of L.A.’s death-row cases, interviewing hundreds of trial and appellate attorneys and reviewing thousands of court records and media accounts. Our research turned up 10 mentally impaired death-row inmates and uncovered this statistic: Half of the time, just like in the Virginia case, the inmate had at least one accomplice, but only the retarded man got the death penalty.
Like most cases that could be affected by the ruling, that of Stanley Bernard Davis is not about guilt or innocence. Instead it turns on less clear-cut principles of justice and fairness. No one doubts that Davis had something to do with the 1985 robbery and killing of a UCLA student and her boyfriend; only that other factors must be considered. Davis is mentally retarded, with an IQ of 73. He had three accomplices, but he alone got the death penalty. Though police found the Uzi semiautomatic pistol used in the killings under the bed of one of Davis‘ crime partners, that man received full immunity for a story that fingered Davis as the lone killer.
But how is it possible that Davis, whose mental age has been measured at 9 12 and who couldn’t even hold down a job as a delivery man because he kept getting lost, could lead a kidnapping-and-murder plot? And how is it possible that he, the only retarded person of the four men involved in the crime, was the only one sentenced to death? Davis, like most of the other 606 inmates on California‘s death row, is appealing his sentence.
”I don’t care who did it,“ said Ruby Davis, who started raising Stanley when he was 2 years old. ”Right is right and wrong is wrong. If there was a group involved, why should one get off scot-free for running his mouth?“ She remembers warning him about his bad friends the day before the crime. ”I said, ‘You should stay away from these guys. They are bad news.’ And that was the end of that. The next day, all hell broke loose.“
The decision by the high court, one of its few rulings in more than a decade to address the application of the death penalty nationwide, leaves it up to the states to rework their laws to exclude the mentally retarded. Another major ruling this week rejected death-penalty laws in five states, including Arizona, where judges -- not juries -- have been deciding who dies. Some 800 cases could be affected. Abolishing the death penalty for the seriously mentally impaired could spare hundreds more, from California to Virginia, Texas to Montana. Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) said she would reintroduce her legislation that would ban the execution of such convicted killers. A similar bill died in committee last year.
Exactly how many prisoners‘ lives hang in the balance is unclear. No records identify who is retarded among the more than 3,700 inmates on death rows across the country, though the New York--based Human Rights Watch estimates 300 nationwide. A fair number would likely come from California, which has the nation’s largest death row. In particular, L.A. County has the most death-row cases of any county nationwide -- more than all but seven states.
The cases found in our review provide a glimpse at the human toll behind the numbers, not glossing over the horrific crimes these men committed but taking a hard look at the circumstances under which only the mentally retarded were singled out for death. Taken together, these cases demonstrate how retarded suspects can fall prey to the system. Unable to assist in their defense, they become unwitting allies in their own conviction. Whatever the degree of blame they share for the crime, they fall the hardest every time. Whether blinded by a misplaced sense of loyalty to their accomplices, unable to recognize a bad attorney or too proud to let on how little they understand of what is happening to them, they are incapable of self-preservation every step of the way, from arrest to interrogation to courtroom testimony.
When accomplices are involved, the outcome seems all but assured. In one instance, a mentally retarded suspect appeared confused during interrogation and asked for his mother. In another, the man turned himself in after seeing his crime on America‘s Most Wanted. In yet another, the entire trial, including conviction and death sentence, lasted less than seven hours. And finally, one mentally retarded suspect was convicted solely on the testimony of his partner in crime and a jailhouse informant. In each case the accomplice got a lighter sentence.