For the second time in as many weeks, Texas' highest criminal court on Wednesday commuted the death sentence of an inmate after agreeing with findings that he was ineligible to be executed because of an intellectual disability.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals changed the death sentence that Gilmar Guevara had faced to life in prison.
Guevara, 50, of El Salvador, was convicted and sentenced to death for the June 2000 fatal shootings of 48-year-old Tae Youk, of South Korea, and 21-year-old Gerardo Yaxon, of Guatemala, during the attempted robbery of a Houston convenience store.
"My faith in the criminal justice system is strengthened by the Texas courts' serious recent consideration of the claim that Mr. Guevara is intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for the death penalty under the U.S. Constitution," said Gretchen Sween, one of his attorneys.
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Guevara's appellate attorneys have long argued jurors never heard about factors that led to their client's intellectual disability, including being exposed to toxic chemicals in utero and enduring poverty, violence and malnutrition as a child.
"Psychiatric experts from both sides agreed that he is intellectually disabled and therefore not eligible for the death penalty; his crimes were horrible and he deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison," Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement.
The ruling follows the appeals court's decision last week to resentence another Texas death row inmate, Juan Lizcano, to life in prison because he was also found to be intellectually disabled. Lizcano, 43, was convicted of capital murder in the November 2005 shooting death of 28-year-old Dallas Police Officer Brian Jackson.
The Texas appeals court's decisions in the two cases follows a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2017 that eventually changed the way Texas determines whether a defendant is intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for execution.
The Supreme Court in 2002 barred the execution of intellectually disabled people, but it has given states some discretion to decide how to determine such disabilities. However, justices have wrestled with how much discretion to allow.
Texas looks at three main points to define intellectual disability: IQ scores, with 70 generally considered a threshold; inmates' ability to interact with others and care for themselves; and whether evidence of deficiencies in either of those areas occurred before age 18.
In 2004, the Texas appeals court created additional factors, including whether an individual's conduct showed leadership and whether a person could "hide facts or lie effectively."
In its ruling in the case of another former Texas death row inmate, Bobby James Moore, the high court said those factors have no grounding in prevailing medical practice and invite lay stereotypes to guide assessment of such disability.