10:19 a.m. August 10, 2012

Of Mice And Killing Mentally Retarded People

"An' live off the fatta the lan'," Lennie shouted. "An' have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we're gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that, George."

* * *

Last Tuesday evening, Marvin Wilson, 54, was executed at the Texas state prison in Huntsville for the 1992 killing of a police informant. (A conviction for which Wilson’s lead defense attorney Lee Kovarsky says there is “no forensic evidence” and “no eyewitness testimony.”) The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Wilson’s lawyer's argument that he was ineligible for execution because of his low I.Q. A 2004 psychological test found his I.Q. to be 61, and in Wilson’s Supreme Court appeal, Kovarsky said that his language and math skills “never progressed beyond an elementary school level.”

Wilson being sentenced to death would seem to be an egregious violation of the 2002 Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, which held that executions of “mentally retarded” criminals are cruel and unusual punishments prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. In 2002, the American Association on Mental Retardation set an I.Q. cutoff score of 70 or below as a general standard for mental retardation, but the Atkins ruling allows states procedural leeway in determining what constitutes intellectual disability (officially termed “mentally retarded” for all you anti-P.C. warriors out there) for themselves.

In the great state of Texas, the guideline is, in part, derived from a fictional strongman with limited brainpower who wants nothing more than to live freely on a farm where he can pet rabbits and smother his beans in ketchup to his heart’s content.

Unbelievable as it sounds, Lennie Small of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” played a significant role in Marvin Wilson’s death. In 2004, instead of using standards set by, say, medical experts, the Texas Court of Appeals came up with a nonclinical pile of steershit known as the “Briseño factors” when determining when people with low IQs should be put to death.

Science was buried in the red Texas mud as the determinants — for ending someone's life, mind you — were constructed around the actions of a made-up character from a left-wing novelist. All Wilson had to prove to a “consensus of Texas citizens” was that he was less mentally capable than someone who doesn’t exist. All Wilson had to do was convince a group of non-neuroscientists/non-English professors, following the strict Briseño dictum that “Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt” from execution, that he was in fact dumber than an imaginary sidekick in a book he didn’t have the mental capacity to read.

It's an idea so brilliant that it's hard to understand why all laws aren't based on classic American literature. Consider, for example ...

  • Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission via "The Great Gatsby": On behalf of shadowy bootlegger Jay Gatsby, stinking rich dudes will now be able to pour their billions into whatever election they see fit. If you’re gilded SCOTUS has your back, but remember, cuckolded husbands don’t give a good goddamn about your Super PAC ad buys.

  • Griswold v. Connecticut as seen through "Portnoy’s Complaint": Sure, it’s surprising that a legal adviser to the GOP presidential candidate believes that the 1965 ruling allowing people to use birth control in the home is a “time bomb.” Onanists, go ahead and ignore that hoary line of thought, at least until Mitt Romney’s elected. For now, exercise that right to privacy Alexander Portnoy-style. There is nothing more self-gratifying than deflowering a dinner entree while horrifying Robert Bork in the process.

  • Plessy v. Ferguson as defined by "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn": Has it ever been determined whether Jim was forced to ride on the back of the raft?

  • Bush V. Gore explained through "A Confederacy of Dunces": Even Ignatius J. Reilly would make for less unctuous company than Nino Scalia. At least there’s the hope of an occasional cheese dip.

Ridiculous? Perhaps. Obnoxious to make with the snark when a mentally deficient man was killed in the name of Lennie? Debatable. But these fake cases have more legal grounding than the real Texas standard for wiping a person off the Earth. The worst part of executing a man with an I.Q. of 61 — apart from executing a man with an I.Q. of 61 — is that the cowards who came up with the “Briseño factors” got the climactic ending of Steinbeck’s masterpiece wrong. Not only is their reasoning completely fucked in the Lone Star state, it’s completely fucked in the best laid schemes o’mice an’ men.

Paul Douglass, Outgoing Director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University explains: “Lennie's death is the result of George's mercy, since he knows that Lennie is inevitably going to be caught, traumatized, and executed for his inadvertent murder of Curley's wife.  He kills Lennie, in other words, to save him from a state-sponsored execution, to save him from being despatched in a violent and terrifying way.”

Ah.

Douglass continues: “George shoots Lennie in the back of the head while comforting him with visions of their dream of a peaceful life together on the land, so that he dies happy rather than in terror. It’s an act of love.”

Hey Texas, You’re Reading It Wrong! And Killing People!

“The idea that a state process of execution could be based in any way on Lennie's case and situation is appalling to anyone who loves Steinbeck's work and has understood his novella even at the shallowest level,” says Douglass. “I share the Steinbeck family’s dismay.”

In his written appeal, Kovarsky wrote that his client, upon execution, would “own the grisly distinction” of becoming the lowest-IQ Texas prisoner executed despite the Supreme Court ruling banning the execution of mentally impaired inmates. On the evening of August 7, Marvin Wilson was put to death by lethal injection.

* * *

"An' you get to tend the rabbits." Lennie giggled with happiness....George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie's head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger. The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again. Lennie jarred, and then settled slowly forward to the sand, and he lay without quivering.