Texas criminal appeals court takes man off death row over intellectual disability

(TEXAS TRIBUNE) – The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals re-sentenced a 64-year-old man on death row to life in prison without parole on Wednesday after a state expert confirmed in trial court that he is intellectually disabled.

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Randall Mays was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of two sheriff’s deputies in Henderson County but in the years since his legal team has filed multiple appeals arguing he is exempt from execution due to his mental competency and intellectual disability.

Over two decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment’s restriction of cruel and unusual punishments, which the criminal appellate court cited in its resentencing decision.

“The evidence of Randall’s intellectual disability is overwhelming. He has a 63 IQ. His intellectual deficits have been seen, and observed by others, throughout his life from childhood to military service, and throughout his adulthood,” Benjamin Wolff, the director of the Texas Office of Capital and Forensic Writs, said in a statement on Wednesday. An expert hired by the state confirmed those findings, the office said.

The state public defender’s office that represents people on death row in post-conviction proceedings has represented Hays since 2015. Mays is also represented by the law firm Haynes Boone and the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Dallas.

During a trial court last year, experts who conducted neuropsychological evaluations of Mays confirmed that he met the criteria for an intellectual disability diagnosis. An expert hired by the state said she could not rebut that finding. The Henderson County District Attorney also did not dispute Mays’ intellectual disability.

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That point in the case was remarkable, Wolff told The Texas Tribune, “when the state of Texas, which sought the death sentence against Randall Mays, could no longer stand behind it.”

Mays shot and killed Henderson County Sheriff’s Deputies Tony Ogburn and Paul Habelt after the officers responded to a domestic disturbance call at his property in Payne Springs, a small town that lies on the border between Central and East Texas.

The Henderson County District Attorney’s Office said it was disappointed that the criminal appeals court took Mays off death row. District Attorney Jenny Palmer said in a Wednesday statement that the diagnostic criteria defining intellectual disability changed after Mays was sentenced to death. She said her office did not agree with the change in criteria.

The district attorney’s office said families of the victims were informed of the criminal appeals court decision on

“We stand ever faithful in our support of the Habelt and Ogburn families and our law enforcement family who must live with the effects of the horrible acts committed by Randall Mays on that day. While the justice they deserve, and Randall Mays has earnedis now not an option, we gain small comfort in being able to say with confidence that Randall Mays will die in prison,” Palmer said in the statement.

In the 16 years Mays has been on death row, his lawyers have repeatedly appealed his conviction on the grounds that he is intellectually disabled, a neurodevelopmental condition. His legal team has also argued that Mays is incompetent to stand trial on the grounds that he has a lack of rational understanding of the case against him.

In 2019, a judge halted an execution of Mays over questions of his competency. A schizophrenia diagnosis and a lack of understanding of why he was set to be executed resulted in a withdrawal of the death warrant less than two weeks before his execution. The Court of Criminal Appeals stopped Mays’ first scheduled execution in 2015 over similar claims.

Ultimately, the state’s highest criminal court cited the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case Atkins v. Virginia, which forbids the execution of people with intellectual disabilities but grants states the power to define that designation.

Texas has executed one person this year. Eight people were put to death in 2023 — more than any other state.

The Texas House has repeatedly attempted to exclude some people with severe mental illnesses from the death penalty. Last year, the House passed a bill that precluded defendants diagnosed with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder from the death penalty. But that effort, like previous ones, died in the more conservative chamber.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

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