The case of Marvin Wilson: when literary theory can kill

Maybe you need to be more intelligent than I am, but I’m finding it hard to answer Amnesty USA’s Brian Evans’ question: “How can Texas execute a man with an IQ of 61?”

Most US states forbid executions of those with below-70 IQs but Texas is nevertheless set to do exactly this tomorrow. It intends to lethally inject Marvin Wilson, a 54-year-old African American man on death row (inmate #999098) after he was convicted of the 1992 murder of a man called Jerry Williams.

A court-appointed clinical neuropsychologist (with decades of experience) has said that Wilson has “mental retardation”. Wilson reportedly has a reading and writing age of a seven-year-old, still sucks his thumb and is apparently unable to perform simple tasks (like buttoning up a shirt) without assistance. The most recent IQ test on Wilson recorded a score of 61 (which would put him in the very bottom one per cent of the population).

In a landmark decision in 2002 (Atkins v. Virginia), the US Supreme Court ruled that executing those with “mental retardation” violated the country’s constitution. Such executions were banned (as they are around the world). So how can Texas be doing this? Check out this Amnesty press release which explains the legal loophole that allows individual US states to interpret the Supreme Court’s decision as they see fit.

Here the Lone Star state is pushing the frontier of what the Supreme Court intended when it banned these executions. Not only has Texas used its own criteria to judge mental capacity (“temporary” guidelines) but these criteria - amazingly - include reliance on a character from a John Steinbeck book published in … 1937.

As Ed Pilkington’s Guardian article explains, Texas’ home-grown assessment of mental capability uses Steinbeck’s pre-war novella Of Mice and Men to assist in its assessments. In particular the severely mentally disabled character Lennie Small is seen as an example of someone so mentally deficient that such a real-life person would not be executed in Texas. (This, remember, is a fictional character, broadly drawn by - frankly - a writer who liked his characters to be larger than life, emblematic rather than subtle and realistic. It’s a novel, not science).

The Lennie Small character is a man so mentally challenged that he can barely function in the world. He’s obsessed with stroking the fur of rabbits. To even refer to Small in adjudications that could determine whether a person should be executed is bizarrely and sickeningly misguided. As Brian Evans says, “it seems that by interpreting a US Supreme Court ruling with 1930s literature instead of 21st century science, Texas has effectively exempted some prisoners with ‘mental retardation’ from the protections ordered by our nation’s highest court”.

I’m a past student of literature and literary theory myself (yes, I’ve ploughed through a mountain of Terry Eagleton and FR Leavis books in my time) but I never dreamed that an over-literal interpretation of a novel could actually be used in a scientific setting to determine matters of life and death. It’s bad science and lethal literary theory.

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