Tennessee won’t execute a man for murdering his mother and daughter because they were both mentally disabled

The state of Tennessee has spared a Death Row inmate who killed his mother and daughter because they were both intellectually disabled.

The decision makes Arkansas the second state to take this stance on its death row inmates, who each face a different standard in determining whether they’re intellectually disabled.

Paul Dale Adams of Smithville pleaded guilty to murdering the two members of his family in 2007. Two years later, a Tennessee Supreme Court justice approved a sentence that would spare him from execution if he committed the crimes in 1999 or later. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s bar on executing people who aren’t capable of understanding the nature of the death penalty also prohibits executing them for crimes they committed as a result of “mental defectiveness.”

In Tennessee, killing a person who is mentally disabled requires “clear and convincing evidence” that the person is intellectually disabled. The mother of Adams was diagnosed with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease at the time of the murder, though she didn’t display any signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Her daughter did have fetal alcohol syndrome, but she wasn’t so diagnosed when Adams went to her house to kill her. The judge who sentenced Adams found that he had an IQ of 67 and that his IQ and other cognitive abilities were more than seven points below the level needed to be classified as intellectually disabled.

Arkansas now looks to its state Supreme Court, as its standard for execution relies on the 50 percent IQ threshold. Of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Mississippi, and Ohio, no state has ruled on whether one who is intellectually disabled can be executed. Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee are among the five states that have explicitly decided those individuals do not qualify as intellectually disabled.

A batch of 789 death row inmates across the country has filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Arkansas’s current standards. A group of scholars including former Alaska attorney general Frank Kelso and Barry Scheck, the founder of the Innocence Project, has signed on to the brief.

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