In 1992, Marvin Wilson was convicted of murdering 21-year-old Jerry Robert Williams, who was a police informant, following a physical confrontation. Several days prior to the confrontation, police had seized 24 grams of cocaine from Wilson’s apartment and arrested him, on a tip from the victim. Wilson accused Williams of snitching on him. According to court documents, “eyewitnesses saw two men—Mr. Wilson and his accomplice, Andrew Lewis—attack Mr. Williams at Mike’s Grocery store in Beaumont, Texas.”
Wilson abducted and shot 21-year-old Jerry Robert Williams following a physical confrontation between the two in the 1500 block of Verone in Beaumont. At the time of the murder, Wilson had two previous convictions for robbery
Eyewitnesses testified that they saw Wilson and Lewis force Williams into a car and drive off in the direction of an oil refinery. According to court documents, “The eyewitness testimony as to the primary assailant was inconsistent.” The next morning around 7 a.m., Williams was found dead with bullet holes in his neck and head. There was no forensic evidence collected that would establish a shooter.
Both men were tried for murder. However, Lewis was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, while Wilson received the death sentence. Wilson’s death sentence was based on testimony from Lewis’s wife naming Wilson as the triggerman. According to pages 4-6 of Wilson’s attorneys’ petition to the Court (which you can access in full below),
“The evidence that Mr. Wilson was the principal perpetrator came from testimony of Terry Lewis, the wife of Mr. Wilson’s accomplice. Ms. Lewis testified that, when she became concerned that her husband pulled the trigger, Mr. Wilson calmed her by assuring her that Mr. Lewis was not the primary assailant. In short, Mr. Wilson received his sentence under precisely the circumstances that make the capital punishment of offenders with MR problematic: he was one of multiple perpetrators, the eyewitness identification of the primary assailant shifted over time, the more-sophisticated accomplice fingered Mr. Wilson as the leader, and evidence of Mr. Wilson’s “confession” came from the accomplice’s wife.”
Despite concerns about whether Wilson was in fact the primary shooter or present when the murder took place, the main point many with his case is that Wilson is in fact, legally mentally retarded.
At 54, Marvin Wilson can’t use a telephone book. He reads and writes on a first- or second-grade level. Those who know the Southeast Texas man say he can’t match socks, he doesn’t understand what a bank account is for, he’s been known to fasten his belt to the point of nearly cutting off his circulation. The day his son was born, one sister recalled, he reverted to the familiar habit of sucking his thumb.
Wilson quit school in the 10th grade after years of failing grades in special education classes and according to family members, struggled with basic tasks such as tying his shoes. His younger sister, Kim Armstrong, reported that at the birth of his son, Marvin reverted to sucking his thumb. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw him still sucking his thumb when his son was born,” Armstrong said in a 2003 affidavit. “Marvin was in his twenties.”
Clinical tests and other factors led a neuropsychologist to diagnose Wilson with “mild mental retardation.” Wilson has an IQ of 61, which is below the benchmark of 70 that is the cutoff for being too mentally impaired to execute.
In a 2002 court decision called Atkins, the U.S. Supreme Court exempted all mentally ill offenders from execution. Part of their reasoning was that mentally disabled defendants are less culpable for their crimes, due to diminished impulse control, etc. They also noted that mentally ill offenders are less capable of aiding in their own defense.
By the Atkins ruling, the state of Texas should be unable to execute Marvin Wilson. However, the Supreme Court left it up to the states to implement their own policies and procedures for upholding the ban. Most states have passed legislation defining intellectual disabilities based on the standards Atkins lays out, Texas has not.
Texas instead has a set of criteria, the “Briseno factors,” that base the definition of mental retardation on a variety of unreliable factors. The Nation’s Liliana Segura reports:
“Named after another Texas death row case, these seven non-clinical measures are meant to show whether a given defendant displays a “level and degree of mental retardation at which a consensus of Texas citizens would agree that a person should be exempted from the death penalty.” As an example, the Briseño court cited the fictitious character of Lennie Small, the mentally impaired migrant worker from John Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men.
“These measures are rooted in ignorance: notions that intellectually disabled people do not know right from wrong, cannot lie in their own self-interest, are incapable of
leadership and so on. The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities has described them [the Briseño factors] as “based on false stereotypes about mental retardation that effectively exclude all but the most severely incapacitated.” “
The Last Chance:
Wilson’s prior appeals have all been denied, and his last chance lies with the U.S. Supreme Court, who has the ability to step in today and grant a stay to consider his case along with another similar one that is pending.
There has been a large amount of coverage and discussion of Wilson’s execution in the weeks leading up to it, with activists, journalists and citizens joining in asking for a stay, in light of Wilson’s diminished mental capacity.
The issues surrounding the Wilson case have lead it to receive far more media attention than most executions receive, and a large amount of media organizations are covering both the case and the execution.
Ellis went on to say “Unfortunately, Texas continues to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court’s categorical ban on the execution of offenders with mental
retardation by developing its own set of determining factors for who will be exempt from execution. Not only are these Briseño factors not accepted by the scientific or medical community, they are not effective in excluding all offenders with mental retardation in accordance with Atkins. The Briseño factors have no basis in science, clearly fail under the law, and furthermore, violate any basic standard of justice and morality.”
“We do not execute children in the state of Texas, therefore we should not execute those who have the mental capacity of a child. The ultimate penalty should be reserved for those that can clearly comprehend why they are going to die.”
Following the coverage of Wilson’s case and Texas’s Briseño factors, author John Steinbeck’s son, Thomas Steinbeck, released a statement saying his father would be “deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way.”
His full statement reads:”On behalf of the family of John Steinbeck, I am deeply troubled by today’s scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson, a Texas man with an I.Q. of 61. Prior to reading about Mr. Wilson’s case, I had no idea that the great state of Texas would use a fictional character that my father created to make a point about human loyalty and dedication, i.e, Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men, as a benchmark to identify whether defendants with intellectual disability should live or die. My father was a highly gifted writer who
won the Nobel prize for his ability to create art about the depth of the human experience and condition. His work was certainly not meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability. I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous, and profoundly tragic. I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way.”
If a stay is not granted, Wilson is set to be executed at 6 p.m. CT at the Polunsky death row unit in Huntsville, Texas.
He will be served the same meal as the other inmates in the unit, since Texas revoked the right to a last meal request after Lawrence Russell Brewer ordered a huge last meal last September and then didn’t touch any of it. (Update: The day’s meal was chicken patties. Officials did not know if Wilson ate them or not.) After meeting with his spiritual adviser and being asked if he has a last statement, he will be injected with a 3-drug pentobarbital cocktail a single dose of pentobarbital, stopping his heart. (Texas used the standard 3-drug cocktail until July 2012, when its supply of one of the other two drugs ran out.)
Wilson’s attorney gave a statement after the stay was denied, saying “It is outrageous that the state of Texas continues to utilize unscientific guidelines, called the Briseño factors, to determine which citizens with intellectual disability are exempt from execution…That neither the courts nor state officials have stopped this execution is not only a shocking failure of a once-promising constitutional commitment, it is also a reminder that, as a society, we haven’t come quite that far in understanding how so many of those around us live with intellectual disabilities.
Witnesses say Wilson also cried out during the execution, saying “Give mom a hug for me and tell her that I love her. Take me home, Jesus. Take me home, Lord. I ain’t left yet, must be a miracle. I am a miracle.” He was declared dead at 6:27 p.m. local time.
UPDATE: Marvin Wilson was executed. He was pronounced dead at 6:27 p.m., 14 minutes after his lethal injection was administered.