Lawyers from a prominent Minneapolis law firm won what they are hailing as a legal first this week when a federal court overturned the death sentence for an Arkansas man because of newly discovered evidence of his intellectual disability.
Steven Wells and fellow attorneys from Dorsey & Whitney won their ruling Tuesday on behalf of Bruce C. Webster, who was 21 years old when he and other men kidnapped 16-year-old Lisa Rene from her suburban Dallas apartment in 1994. She was taken to Arkansas, raped, beaten with a shovel and buried alive. Authorities called it a drug-related crime to retaliate against her brothers.
“The is the first time we are aware of that newly discovered evidence that goes to intellectual disability” has led a federal court to overturn a death sentence, “as opposed to a defendant’s guilt or innocence,” Wells said Thursday after the ruling of Judge William Lawrence of the U.S. District Court in southern Indiana.
“This is a groundbreaking and just outcome for Mr. Webster,” Wells added, “an intellectually disabled man who never should have been sentenced to death.”
Amnesty International separately also took up Webster’s cause and sought to have President George W. Bush commute the death sentence. The global rights group said Webster endured a physically and sexually abusive childhood, and he had IQ scores low enough for a doctor to find that he had the functioning ability of a 6- or 7-year-old.
The Supreme Court in 2002 barred the execution of intellectually disabled people.
Webster remains in federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., ahead of resentencing. Prosecutors could appeal Tuesday’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Erin Dooley, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Texas, said, “Prosecutors are evaluating their options.”
The legal team informed Webster of the ruling Wednesday by telephone. “He broke down in tears and wanted to tell his mother,” said Wells.
Hennepin County District Judge Bruce Manning pointed out Thursday that the same grounds for appeal worked in 2006 — in that instance at the state court level — and involved a different Minneapolis law firm providing defense counsel. Manning and others working on the case for Robins Kaplan had the death sentence for murderer Jeremiah Jackson overturned in Alabama.
At Webster’s 1996 trial in Texas, his defense presented substantial evidence of his mental disability, making him ineligible for execution under federal statute, the defense team explained.
The government called expert witnesses who testified, without ever performing a full-scale IQ test, that Webster was faking his mental limitations to avoid execution.
Appeals proved futile.
In court documents, prosecutors argued Webster had sufficient mental capabilities to run a drug dealing business and that during his crime, he “demonstrated an ability to plan, strategize, and adapt, particularly in his numerous efforts to conceal his crime by destroying forensic evidence.”
Dorsey & Whitney took the case in 2008 and discovered Social Security records in which the agency’s psychologists diagnosed Webster two years before the killing as “mentally retarded.”
Those records started an 11-year pursuit that involved dozens of Dorsey lawyers, paralegals, summer associates and the Capital Project of the Federal Defenders Office to get the new information before a federal court to evaluate his intellectual competence.
“The Social Security Administration failed to provide information critical to Mr. Webster’s defense, despite the request,” Wells said. “The government continued to pursue his execution even after being made aware of the new evidence.”
Dorsey & Whitney’s arguments were first rejected by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and then by a panel of the Seventh Circuit in Chicago. But the full Seventh Circuit overturned the earlier panel decision, holding for the first time that Webster has the right to show that the newly discovered evidence was not reasonably available to his defense and to have it potentially put before a federal judge to decide whether he was truly intellectually disabled.
Judge Lawrence in Indiana held a hearing in April and ruled Tuesday that Webster had proved by “a preponderance of the evidence” that he was intellectually disabled, leading to the death sentence being overturned.
Four others were sentenced in the teenager’s kidnapping, rape and killing. Three went to prison, and one remains on death row.