In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled executing people with Intellectual Disabilities unconstitutional. Nearly 20 years later, American judges and hired-gun psychologists continue to usher the Intellectually Disabled to Death Row. This documentary film about the death penalty is presented by the nonprofit Picture Social Justice.
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In 1986, Jerome Bowden, a poor, orphaned, young, Black man with an IQ of 59 was executed based on a confession he was coerced into signing. Less than two years later, publicity about his execution led Georgia to become the first state to outlaw executions of people with low I.Q.s or what are now called Intellectual Disabilities (ID). Other states followed suit, and in 2002 legal history was made when the United States Supreme Court issued the Atkins v. Virginia ruling that it is unconstitutional to execute such people. Justice John Paul Stevens writing for the majority cited the Bowden case as having started the tidal wave of changes leading to this.
In spite of the Atkins decision, his execution of people with Intellectual Disabilities continues today, the SCOTUS decision having failed in its aim to halt some of the criminal justice system’s most serious injustices. These executions continue through the same method used with Jerome Bowden: Hired-gun psychologists are used to distort I.Q. evaluations. The rise of psychology as a powerful guild, leading to the widespread but sorely mistaken belief that psychological evaluations are scientific and objective, has led to a fundamental transformation of a significant part of the justice system, a transformation that persists in part because it is largely invisible to the public.
EXECUTION BY THE NUMBERS is about those who are the least powerful and most endangered people in the part of the justice system where the stakes are life-and-death. They are people who have Intellectual Disabilities, have been sentenced to death, and are disproportionately poor and Black or Hispanic. For people with an ID, the skids to prison are greased, because they are easily led into falsely confessing, tend to have difficulty assisting in their own defense, and often fail to comprehend consequences of their actions, to be able to conform their actions to the law, and to understand the death penalty.
Publicly, judges bear the responsibility for deciding who will live and who will die, but in reality, they often transfer life-or-death decisions from their shoulders to those of psychologists who do I.Q. evaluations. Psychologists are widely assumed to base their evaluations on science, as well as to focus on helping rather than harming, but some continue to operate differently and under the radar. Furthermore, I.Q. tests are often assumed to be objective, allowing no room for the psychologist to make judgments about, for instance, how many points to assign to specific answers, but this is not the case.
In an ideal system, the prisoners’ attorneys would identify the flaws in psychologists’ reports, but in Atkins cases (as often in other criminal cases and in divorce and child custody cases), there is often a dearth of adequate representation and resources to make it possible to reveal errors and biases in I.Q. evaluations.
Other factors weight the scales against the accused, including prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense representation and resources, the fact that judges are highly likely to have been prosecutors, and, powerfully, the history of racism in the direct chain from enslavement to lynching to Jim Crow laws to bias in the justice system.
EXECUTION BY THE NUMBERS is about the legal history of these cases and about the question of how and why, in light of the Atkins decision, executions of people with I.D. continue 17 years later, as well as what it will take to stop them.
I chose to direct this film because it’s personal.
In 11th grade, my high school math teacher approached me about summer work. She was teaching summer school and needed someone to watch her son, Michael, who had an Intellectual Disability. I accepted. Over the summer, she would drop-off Michael at my house in the mornings.
Usually, the night before, I would plan the next day’s activities with him. That summer, Michael and I were inseparable. We would go to the park and play basketball, go to the mall, play video games, listen to music, or participate in arts and crafts at the community center. He was like the little brother I never had. Even the kids in my neighborhood accepted Michael as part of the “crew.” I remember how much he enjoyed nature and being outside. Often, we would find ourselves in the backyard, gazing at my mother’s flowers, sucking the nectar from honeysuckle, watching beetles, grasshoppers and centipedes crawl across the ground, or picking up the pecans that fell from our pecan tree. He was completely trusting of me, and I didn’t take it for granted.
Michael had a child-like innocence, and he was in total wonderment about everything around him. I didn’t realize the impact I had on Michael until his mother told me how much he loved being around me, so much so that Michael began to mimic my mannerisms and even try to use slang words I often used. He just wanted
to be accepted. Michael’s mother told me she could see the positive impact I had on him, and she always thanked me for being his friend. What she didn’t know was how much Michael taught me about patience, compassion and true friendship.
My vision is to push the conversation of the death penalty as it relates to people with Intellectual Disabilities. As we learn about its complexities, we must recognize our own prejudices and failures. I’m reminded of something Bryan Stevenson writes in his excellent book, Just Mercy, “We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.”
“Execution by the Numbers” is relevant to the social and human rights discussion currently going on. The film shines a light on a system that allows hired-gun psychologists to influence judges to order the harshest of punishments against those who cannot protect themselves. The film is told by prosecuting and defense attorneys, scholars, advocates, religious leaders, friends, enemies, jurors, family members and the the people with Intellectual Disabilities who are on Death Row.
As you watch the film, ask yourself this question, “If the Supreme Court ruled that executing people with Intellectual Disabilities is ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ how and why do courts get away with it?” As the Honorable Justice John Paul Stevens once said, “There are all sorts of reasons one could be offended by the execution of a child. The same reaction should apply to an older person with the mentality of a child.”