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Freedom From the Test

THE NATIONS FIRST-EVER MASS IQ testing of death-row inmates has been called off at San Quentin because of widespread opposition from attorneys who feared the tests could produce inaccurate results.

Testing of the more than 600 inmates on California’s death row was scheduled to begin in October, but those plans were delayed after attorneys protested.

Now, prisoners can opt out of the testing, according to an agreement reached after several months of talks between the prison and attorneys, with the help of the Prison Law Office, a prisoners-rights advocacy group. “We feel like we successfully mediated between the two,” said Heather MacKay, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office. “I think it came out as well as it could.”

Nearly 80 percent of the inmates have chosen not to be tested, according to Vernell Crittendon, spokesman at San Quentin.

Prison officials said they initiated the testing plan because of a court order that requires them to identify and assist inmates with cognitive disorders such as retardation, epilepsy and autism. But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer banning execution of the mentally retarded complicated matters.

Attorneys for many inmates are just beginning to investigate whether their clients might qualify for removal from death row under the federal ban. IQ is one of several factors used in determining whether a person is mentally retarded. The others are when the onset of a disorder occurred during childhood, and the inability to perform some basic daily functions. Attorneys worried that inaccurate testing conducted by prison staff could hamper valid retardation claims down the road.

MacKay, whose group has been pushing for years to get special treatment for mentally impaired inmates, had mixed feelings about the widespread waivers. “I am somewhat worried,” she said, “that there are folks who are not going to have their needs met.”