Of Mice and Men (and Injustice)

August 09, 2012

On Tuesday, Texas executed a man with a recorded IQ of just 61. It's a new record low for the state! Although the U.S. Supreme Court declared executions of mentally-impaired people to be unconstitutional, it let each state decide who met that standard. So Texas executed Marvin Wilson, a man who can barely read. State officials claim his IQ was not as low as the defense claimed, although they acknowledge he has some mental impairment. The worst part of the assessment by Texas officials is they rely on non-scientific standards to determine mental capabilities. They turn instead to a fictional character to help them ascertain who they can execute. In a previous case, a Texas appeals court explained the standard by referring to a character in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men:

Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt. But, does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?
The decision actually includes a footnote after Lennie to explain what book the reference come from. Tuesday's execution suggests Texas officials apparently did not believe Wilson passed the Lennie test (but I suspect that Texas might actually come up with an argument to support even the execution of Lennie). Thomas Steinbeck criticized Texas for this argument in a statement this week:
On behalf of the family of John Steinbeck, I am deeply troubled by today's scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson, a Texas man with an I.Q. of 61. Prior to reading about Mr. Wilson's case, I had no idea that the great state of Texas would use a fictional character that my father created to make a point about human loyalty and dedication, i.e, Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men, as a benchmark to identify whether defendants with intellectual disability should live or die. My father was a highly gifted writer who won the Nobel prize for his ability to create art about the depth of the human experience and condition. His work was certainly not meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability. I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous, and profoundly tragic. I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way.
The statement did not impact the case, but hopefully it sparks a discussion about what standard Texas will use in the future--scientific measures or a subjective assessment based on the description of a fictitious character (or the movie portrayal thereof in case Texas officials have not actually read the book).