MARSHALL COUNTY, Ala. — Lawyers for Jimmy O’Neal Spencer 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 is 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 her neighbor Martha Reliford.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone who is intellectually disabled, but figuring that out can be complex.
News 19 spoke to Huntsville defense attorney Ron Smith, who has handled similar death penalty challenges but is not representing Spencer.
Smith said it is a question for the judge in the case, not a jury. He said the guiding standard is which side persuades the court it has a preponderance of the evidence on the disputed question of Spencer’s intellectual capacity. Determining intellectual disability has three components, he said.
“There’s a three-part test, and one is an IQ score of 70 or below, the next is that you have significant adaptive functioning deficits, that’s just daily living skills. The last one is that these issues had to have manifested themselves prior to your 18th birthday,” Smith said.
Prosecutors say Spencer does not meet the U.S. Supreme Court standard for intellectual disability set out in its Atkins decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s majority wrote, in part, “Mentally [disabled] persons frequently know the difference between right and wrong and are competent to stand trial. Because of their impairments, however, by definition they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand the reactions of others. There is no evidence that they are more likely to engage in criminal conduct than others, but there is abundant evidence that they often act on impulse rather than pursuant to a premeditated plan, and that in group settings they are followers rather than leaders.
“Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but they do diminish their personal culpability.”
The defense filing argued that Spencer is intellectually disabled. The defense cited his low IQ test scores, poor performance in school and his inability to read and write.
“First, he suffers from significantly subaverage intellectual functioning. On December 10, 2021, he was administered the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – Fourth Edition (WAIS-IV) by Board Certified Clinical Neuropsychologist, H. Randall Griffith, and was determined to have an IQ score falling within the range of 53-61. The Defendant’s Verbal Comprehension Index (similarities, vocabulary, information) score was at 61; Perceptual Reasoning Index (block design, matrix reasoning, visual puzzles) score was a 69; Working Memory Index (digit span, arithmetic) score was a 60; and Processing Speed Index (symbol search, digit symbol coding) score was a 56.
“Second, the Defendant suffers from significant or substantial deficits in adaptive behavior. The Defendant has never learned to read or write and is unquestionably illiterate. The Defendant did not attend school after the eighth grade, and while in grade school, he attended special education classes. The Defendant’s intellectual test result fell in the extremely low range. Finally, the onset of Mr. Spencer’s intellectual disability occurred before the age of 18. The Defendant failed multiple grades in grade school and was placed in special education classes. The Defendant has an eighth-grade education and never attended school after that time. The Defendant failed to learn to read and write while in school and is illiterate. The Defendant struggled intellectually while in school and quit after eighth grade.”
In its response to the defense claims, the Spencer prosecution argued that Spencer refused to take an IQ test from the state’s doctor. Prosecutors argue that should bar Spencer from citing the disability claim.
Prosecutors also argue:
“Defendant’s IQ was determined to be 80 upon his admission to the Alabama Department of Corrections; “
“Spencer has the ability to feign his responses to questions on the WAIS-IV administered to him on December 10, 2021, thereby making his IQ appear to be lower than it actually is;”
Defendant does not suffer from any significant or substantial deficits in his adaptive behavior, as was demonstrated by his providing for himself and his girlfriend, having the skill to do automotive body work, his detailed admission of the crimes, his planning and carrying out of the crimes, and his furtive plans to avoid detection; The best evidence of this claim would be records from his school, which burned down in the late 1980’s taking those records up in smoke.”
It is a different issue than an insanity defense.
“You can still be convicted, it’s not a not guilty by reason of insanity, anything like that, all it does is deal solely with punishment,” Smith said.
A hearing is set for October 17 before Spencer’s trial on the same day and the stakes are high.
“If he is intellectually disabled, he is not qualified or eligible to be executed,” Smith said.