Appeals court says Alabama can’t execute intellectually disabled inmate

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday said Alabama cannot execute a man with an IQ in the 70s, agreeing with a lower court’s ruling that he is intellectually disabled and that his death sentence is unconstitutional.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge’s 2021 decision vacating the death sentence of Joseph Clifton Smith, 52.

Smith was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1997 beating death of Durk Van Dam. Van Dam, whose body was found in his pickup truck in Mobile County, died as a result of 35 blunt-force injuries to his body, according to testimony from a forensic pathologist.

The appellate court wrote Friday that it found no error in the federal judge’s review of the case that determined that Smith is “intellectually disabled and, as a result, that his (death) sentence violates the Eighth Amendment.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 barred the execution of intellectually disabled people. The court has since ruled that in borderline cases, states should look at other evidence of disability because of the margin of error in IQ tests.

Alabama law defines intellectual disability as an IQ of 70 or below, “significant or substantial deficits in adaptive behavior” and the onset of those issues before the age of 18.

Smith scored as low as 72 and as high as 78 on IQ tests over the years and showed evidence of poor intellectual and adaptive functioning since a young age, the court ruling noted. He was placed in school programs for students with learning or intellectual disabilities and ”went on to fail the seventh and eighth grades before dropping out of school for good.”

Senior U.S. District Judge Callie V. S. Granade wrote in 2021 that Smith’s IQ score of 72 could mean his IQ is actually as low as 69 “if you take into account the standard error of measurement.”

“This is a close case, but the evidence indicates that Smith’s intelligence and adaptive functioning has been deficient throughout his life,” Granade wrote.

The ruling is a victory for Smith’s attorneys who have been fighting for years to overturn his death sentence.

A spokeswoman for Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said the state will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Joseph Smith brutally murdered Durk Van Dam in 1997, and for that, he was sentenced to death. Smith’s IQ scores have consistently placed his IQ above that of someone who is intellectually disabled. The Attorney General thinks his death sentence was both just and constitutional,” Amanda Priest, a spokeswoman for Marshall, wrote in an email.