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Webster v. Lockett

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Terre Haute Division

June 18, 2019



          Hon. William T. Lawrence, Senior Judge

         This cause is before the Court to determine whether Bruce Webster is entitled to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2241. For the Court to grant the relief that Webster seeks, Webster must show by a preponderance of the evidence that he is intellectually disabled[1] and thus categorically ineligible for the death penalty. The parties have fully briefed the relevant issues and presented evidence at a hearing. The Court, being duly advised, finds that Webster has satisfied his burden of proving his intellectual disability by a preponderance of the evidence and is thus ineligible for the death penalty.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On November 4, 1994, Bruce Webster was indicted in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas on six counts, including kidnapping in which a death occurred in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1201(a)(1) and (2). Webster was convicted and was sentenced to death on June 20, 1996. United States v. Webster, 162 F.3d 308 (5th Cir. 1998).

         Webster filed his initial Motion to Vacate Conviction and Sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 on September 29, 2000. This motion was subsequently amended and was denied in full on September 20, 2003. Webster v. United States, No. 4:00-CV-1646, 2003 WL 23109787 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 30, 2003). The Fifth Circuit rejected Webster's motion for relief under section 2255, United States v. Webster, 421 F.3d 308 (5th Cir. 2005), and his application for an order authorizing a successive § 2255 proceeding, In re Webster, 605 F.3d 256 (5th Cir. 2010).

         On April 6, 2012, Webster filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241 in this Court, [2] challenging his death sentence based on what he argued was previously unavailable evidence-specifically, evidence from Social Security records-that establishes he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) and Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. 701 (2014). On November 13, 2013, this Court issued an order denying that petition. The Seventh Circuit affirmed this Court's ruling on August 1, 2014. Webster v. Caraway, 761 F.3d 764 (7th Cir. 2014). However, en banc review was granted, and the en banc court reversed this Court's decision and remanded for further proceedings. Webster v. Daniels, 784 F.3d 1123 (7th Cir. 2015) (en banc). This Court held a hearing in June 2018 pursuant to the Seventh's Circuit directive and found that the Social Security records at issue were unavailable to Webster and his counsel at the time of trial despite trial counsel's due diligence.

         The Seventh Circuit provided the following summary of the Social Security records' contents:

The newly produced records, which Webster's current lawyers received on February 9, 2009, showed that Webster applied for Social Security benefits based on a sinus condition when he was 20 years old, approximately a year before the crime. The agency's attention was evidently quickly redirected to Webster's mental capacity. Two psychologists and one physician examined him. On December 22, 1993, Dr. Charles Spellman, a psychologist, evaluated him for the purpose of ascertaining his eligibility for Social Security benefits. He noted that “[i]deation was sparse and this appeared to be more of a function of his lower cognitive ability than of any mental illness.” Dr. Spellman also observed that Webster's intellectual functioning was quite limited: he could not register three objects (meaning that he could not remember three objects a short time after they were shown to him); he could not do simple calculations; and he did not know what common sayings meant. With respect to adaptive functioning, Dr. Spellman stated that Webster lived with his mother; that he watched television, listened to the radio, and went walking; that he did no chores around the house; and that he was idle both in the house and on the streets. Taking into account both his estimate that Webster's I.Q. was 69 or lower and his assessment of adaptive functioning, Dr. Spellman concluded that Webster was mentally retarded and antisocial. He found no evidence of exaggeration or malingering.
A few months earlier, in October 1993, Dr. Edward Hackett conducted a full-scale WAIS I.Q. test on Webster. He came up with a verbal I.Q. of 71, a performance I.Q. of 49, and a full-scale I.Q. of 59. He evaluated Webster as “mildly retarded, but . . . also antisocial.” Pertinent to the central question of adaptive functioning, Dr. Hackett noted in a later report that “[Webster] was viewed as a somewhat mild[ly] retarded con man, but very street wise. . . . [H]e could not be functional in a community setting. . . . He would also not function well in the work place.” Dr. Hackett did not believe that Webster was capable of managing his own benefits. He found Webster's behavior somewhat bizarre. Finally, he commented that on the I.Q. tests, Webster's performance was estimated to be lower than his verbal score, and that some organic function might be involved.
The last professional to examine Webster in conjunction with the 1993 Social Security application was Dr. C.M. Rittelmeyer, a physician. Dr. Rittelmeyer found Webster's physical health to be fine, but he also had this to say: “Mental retardation. Flat feet. Chronic sinus problems and allergies by history.”
The Social Security records included an intriguing letter that strongly suggested that Webster in fact had been in special education classes. It was dated November 8, 1993, and had been written by Lou Jackson, the Special Education Supervisor for the school system Webster had attended, Watson Chapel Schools. Jackson's letter explained that Webster's special education records had been destroyed in 1988, after the family did not respond to a letter “telling them they could have the records if they wanted them.”
The Social Security records also provide some direct evidence about Webster's abilities. The form Webster completed, for example, is rife with errors in syntax, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and thought. In response to a question asking him to describe his pain or other symptoms, Webster wrote “it causEs mE to gEt up sEt Easily hEadhurtsdiffiErnt of brEdth.” When asked about the side effects of his medication, he wrote “Is lEEp bEttEr.” When asked about his usual daily activities, Webster wrote (consistently with the comments from his teacher and employer) “I slEEps look at. cartoon.” He reported that he “ain't got no chang” in his condition since its onset.

Webster, 784 F.3d at 1133-34.

         The undersigned held a five-day hearing in April 2019 on the issue of whether Webster is intellectually disabled and thus constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty. The Court heard live testimony from the following witnesses: Dr. Mark Tassé; Dr. Daniel J. Reschly; Dr. John Fabian; Dr. Robert Denney; Dr. Erin Conner; John S. Edwards, III; and Phil Woolston. The Court also received the deposition testimony of Dr. Charles Spellman (video and transcript); Dr. Jacqueline Blessinger (transcript); and Larry Moore (video and transcript). Each party also introduced numerous exhibits.[3]


         In determining whether Webster is intellectually disabled, the Court will rely on the clinical definitions of intellectual disability promulgated by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (“AAIDD”) and the American Psychiatric Association (“APA”) manuals: (1) AAIDD, Intellectual Disability: Definition, Classification, and Systems of Supports (11th ed. 2010) (“AAIDD-11”); and (2) APA, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed. 2013) (“DSM-5”). See Moore v. Texas, 137 S.Ct. 1039, 1045 (2017) (relying on AAIDD-11 and DSM-5).

         As the Supreme Court has explained,

the generally accepted, uncontroversial intellectual-disability diagnostic definition . . . identifies three core elements: (1) intellectual-functioning deficits (indicated by an IQ score approximately two standard deviations below the mean- i.e., a score of roughly 70-adjusted for the standard error of measurement); (2) adaptive deficits (the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances); and (3) the onset of these deficits while still a minor.

Moore, 137 S.Ct. at 1045. Each of these three prongs must be met for a person to be intellectually disabled.[4]

         The APA defines intellectual disability as “a disorder with onset during the developmental period that includes both intellectual and adaptive functioning deficits in conceptual, social, and practical domains.” DSM-5 at 33. The following three criteria must be met before an individual may receive a diagnosis of intellectual disability:

A. Deficits in intellectual functions, such as reasoning, problem solving, planning, abstract thinking, judgment, academic learning, and learning from experience, confirmed by both clinical assessment and individualized, standardized intelligence testing.
B. Deficits in adaptive functioning that result in failure to meet developmental and sociocultural standards for personal independence and social responsibility. Without ongoing support, the adaptive deficits limit functioning in one or more activities of daily life, such as communication, social participation, and independent living, across multiple environments, such as home, school, work, and community.
C. Onset of intellectual and adaptive deficits during the developmental period.


         The AAIDD provides a similar explanation, stating that intellectual disability is “characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills. This disability originates before age 18.” AAIDD-11 at 6. Deficits in intellectual functioning are established by “an IQ score that is approximately two standard deviations below the mean, considering the standard error of measurement for the specific assessment instruments used and the instruments' strengths and limitations.” Id. at 27. Deficits in adaptive functioning are measured by:

performance on a standardized measure of adaptive behavior that is normed on the general population including people with and without [intellectual disability] that is approximately two standard deviations below the mean of either (a) one of the following three types of adaptive behavior: conceptual, social, and practical or (b) an overall score on a standardized measure of conceptual, social, and practical skills.


         A. Intellectual Functioning

         The first prong requires an assessment of an individual's intellectual functions that “involve reasoning, problem solving, planning, abstract thinking, judgment, learning from instruction and experience, and practical understanding.” DSM-5 at 37. Intellectual functioning is typically measured by intelligence quotient (IQ) tests. Id. The APA describes this prong, in relevant part, as follows:

Intellectual functioning is typically measured with individually administered and psychometrically valid, comprehensive, culturally appropriate, psychometrically sound tests of intelligence. Individuals with intellectual disability have scores of approximately two standard deviations or more below the population mean, including a margin for measurement error (generally points). On tests with a standard deviation of 15 and a mean of 100, this involves a score of 65-75 (70 ± 5). Clinical training and judgment are required to interpret test results and assess intellectual performance.

DSM-5 at 37. The AAIDD Manual provides:

The “significant limitations in intellectual functioning” criterion for a diagnosis of intellectual disability is an IQ score that is approximately two standard deviations below the mean, considering the standard error of measurement for the specific instruments used and the instruments' strengths and limitations.

AAIDD-11 at 31.

         B. Adaptive Functioning

         The second prong involves an assessment of an individual's adaptive functioning to determine whether “adaptive deficits limit functioning in one or more activities of daily life, such as communication, social participation, and independent living, across multiple environments, such as home, school, work, and community.” DSM-5 at 33. The APA indicates that adaptive functioning involves adaptive reasoning in three broad domains:

The conceptual (academic) domain involves competence in memory, language, reading, writing, math reasoning, acquisition of practical knowledge, problem solving, and judgment in novel situations, among others. The social domain involves awareness of others' thoughts, feelings, and experiences; empathy; interpersonal communication skills; friendship abilities; and social judgment, among others. The practical domain involves learning and self-management across life settings, including personal care, job ...

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