Emma Draper

Holly Wood to become the latest victim of Alabama's underfunded justice system

on 05 July 2010

Last week the Alabama Supreme Court set an execution date for Holly Wood, a man who was convicted of killing his former girlfriend Ruby Lois Gosha in 1993 and sentenced to death, despite the fact that he has an approximate IQ of 59 – the score for a person of normal intelligence is around 100.

In federal court, the judge threw out the death sentence on the basis that Wood’s lawyer had failed to tell jurors of his client’s serious mental impairment. The Alabama justice system is severely underfunded and only $1,000 was allotted to Wood's defence to prepare for the penalty phase of the trial. In the11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, the dissenting judge criticised a system in which an "inexperienced and overwhelmed attorney" was representing a man indicted on a capital offence. However, the majority voted to resinstate the death penalty when the prosecution successfully argued that Wood’s lawyer had not been “unconstitutionally ineffective”; while he may have made a strategic error it was apparently not such a grave mistake that his client’s life could be spared.

Although the state of Alabama defines any IQ score below 70 as “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning”, Wood did not demonstrate the exact deficiencies in adaptive functioning that Alabama law requires for the accused to be found mentally retarded and thus ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v Virginia. However, his low intelligence would have been taken into account at the sentencing hearing as a factor clearly suggesting that leniency would be appropriate. As it was, the jury voted 10-2 for the death penalty, the minimum necessary majority.

If the ten jurors in favour of execution had known that the man they were condemning to death only read at a third-grade level, and if even one of them had therefore changed his or her mind, the 2nd of September would pass for Wood like any other day. Instead, unless the Governor of Alabama sees fit to grant clemency, it will be his last day on earth. 

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