WASHINGTON — Virginia cannot reinstate the death sentence of a convicted killer who claims he is too mentally disabled to be executed, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The justices did not comment in letting stand lower court rulings that threw out the sentence of death for Leon Winston, a northern Virginia man convicted in the shooting deaths of Anthony and Rhonda Robinson of Lynchburg in 2002. Rhonda Robinson, who was pregnant, was shot to death in front of her 4- and 8-year-old daughters.
The case now returns to state court for resentencing.
The lower court had concluded that Winston’s lawyers did not try hard enough to show Winston was mentally disabled, and thus, ineligible to be executed under a 2002 Supreme Court ruling.
The state had argued Winston waited too late to produce evidence of his low IQ.
Caroline Gibson, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said prosecutors were disappointed in the decision. Winston’s attorney did not immediately return telephone and email messages seeking comment.
A panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent Winston’s case back to the federal district court in Roanoke in 2010 to examine claims that Winston had scored a 66 on an IQ test as a teenager, which would put him below the score of 70 that is Virginia’s threshold for mental retardation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing the mentally retarded amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and is unconstitutional.
The federal court in 2011 said Winston could appeal his death sentence based on the new evidence. The state appealed, arguing that a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued after the appeals court ordered the review has severely limited the kinds of evidence that can be considered on appeal.
At issue was whether the claim of mental retardation was considered by the Supreme Court of Virginia. If so, then the new ruling barred the federal courts from considering new evidence on that claim.
At his trial, Winston’s attorneys did not press the issue, even though an expert had described him as mildly retarded. The only three intelligence quotient test scores they had at the time put Winston slightly above 70.
The state argued that Winston’s trial lawyers knew about the retardation claim but refused to press it because their mental health expert did not think they could prove it. In fact, the expert said he thought Winston, rather than being mentally retarded, suffered from an antisocial personality disorder, if not psychopathy.
Winston’s attorneys did bring up the issue during his state appeals. They presented to the Virginia Supreme Court a cover page from a Fairfax County Public Schools special education form that indicated Winston had mild mental retardation, but his attorneys said the test scores and other data relied on to reach that determination could not be found. The test in which Winston scored the 66 wasn’t found until his federal appeals were under way.
The case is Pearson v. Winston, 12-492.