The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Aliya Sternstein and John R. Mills now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:
While the execution of defendants who score significantly low on intelligence tests, struggle to adapt their behavior to their environment, and experience these deficits during the developmental years is unconstitutional — some courts have imposed or upheld death sentences because they find the defendant also has a drug addiction.
These courts misread the no longer used technical phrase “related to” in the above medical criteria for an intellectual disability (ID) diagnosis. The criteria stated that shortfalls in adaptive behavior must be “related to” low intellectual functioning. The long-settled medical community consensus is that there is no requirement to identify the psychological causes of these adaptive deficits. But the misinformed courts have improperly held that related to means “caused by” instead of “co-existing with,” requiring proof of a negative: that the accused’s deficits in behavior are not caused by a substance use disorder. This legal and medical error is common in some jurisdictions. That is so, even in light of U.S. Supreme Court instructions to be informed by the medical consensus when assessing ID.
Although a great deal has been written about the exemption of those with ID from execution, little legal scholarship has addressed the intersection of substance abuse, Supreme Court reliance on the medical consensus in death eligibility decisions, and a misunderstanding or disregard of the consensus that addiction may and often do co-exist with ID. Limited social skills and a self-perception of being different from others can foster loneliness and an urge to fit in that defendants with ID overcome by abusing drugs and alcohol. The high Court has explicitly recognized the same: because people with ID often have other psychological impairments, the “existence of a personality disorder or mental-health issue, in short, is not evidence that a person does not also have intellectual disability.”
Judges and jurors perhaps deny protection to defendants with addictions and ID because of a misperception that those with substance use disorders are more blameworthy for their plight than defendants with additional psychological disorders or those with only ID. But neither the medical consensus nor the Supreme Court has ever suggested that addiction changes the level of culpability of an offender with ID. Quite the opposite: ID may heighten the risk of developing a substance use disorder.
This paper makes the straightforward case that a defendant, who otherwise meets the ID criteria, cannot be excluded from the constitutional prohibition on executing those with ID simply because of a dual diagnosis of substance abuse. Accordingly, courts must not require a defendant asserting ineligibility for execution to show that their deficits in adaptive behavior are “related to” an intellectual impairment and not related to substance abuse or some other psychological impairment.