HOUSTON (AP) — A judge has vacated the federal death sentence for an Arkansas man convicted in the 1994 slaying of a 16-year-old Texas girl, concluding the inmate can’t be put to death because he’s intellectually disabled.
Attorneys for Bruce Carneil Webster had challenged his death sentence based on what they argued was previously unavailable evidence showing medical professionals had determined before his trial he was intellectually disabled.
Webster, 46, was among five men whom prosecutors said kidnapped Lisa Rene from her Arlington, Texas, home to get revenge on her two brothers for a botched $5,000 marijuana deal. Over two days, she was taken to Arkansas, gang-raped, bludgeoned with a shovel and buried alive.
Rene was dragged from the family’s apartment as she pleaded with a 911 operator. “They’re trying to break down my door! Hurry up!” she said, according to a tape of the call.
Steven Wells, one of Webster’s appellate attorneys, called the ruling a “just outcome” for “an intellectually disabled man who never should have been sentenced to death.”
Erin Dooley, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Dallas, which tried Webster, said prosecutors are evaluating how to proceed following the ruling.
The case has been sent back to federal court in Dallas for resentencing.
The appeal had been filed with William Lawrence, a federal judge in Terre Haute, Indiana, because that is where Webster is housed at a U.S. prison with other federal death row inmates.
In his ruling on Tuesday, Lawrence said a review of Webster’s IQ scores from the last 26 years found that the scores “consistently demonstrate that Webster has an IQ that falls within the range of someone with intellectual deficits.”
An IQ score of about 70 is considered a benchmark for intellectual disability. In the past 26 years, Webster has had IQ scores as low as 51 and 53.
The Supreme Court in 2002 barred the execution of intellectually disabled people.
Webster’s attorneys had based their appeal in part on records they were able to obtain that showed that a year before Rene’s murder, the death row inmate had undergone several evaluations as a part of an application for Social Security benefits. The evaluations concluded Webster was intellectually disabled.
The records also showed his “intellectual functioning was quite limited” and that a form Webster completed as part of the application process was “rife with errors in syntax, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and thought.”
“The application materials revealed that Webster was barely literate,” according to Lawrence’s ruling.
Webster’s appellate attorneys have said his trial attorneys tried to get the Social Security records but were given nothing.
In court documents, prosecutors argued Webster was faking his intellectual disability, had sufficient mental capabilities to manage a drug dealing business and that during his crime, Webster “demonstrated an ability to plan, strategize, and adapt, particularly in his numerous efforts to conceal his crime by destroying forensic evidence.”
“Webster is not a gullible victim, but a cunning predator,” prosecutors said in a May court filing.
Besides Webster, Orlando Hall of El Dorado, Arkansas, was also sentenced to death for Rene’s murder. Hall remains on death row.
Webster had been set to be put to death in April 2007, but the execution was later postponed.
There are currently 62 inmates on federal death row in the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The last federal execution took place in 2003.
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