Execution eligibility hearing begins
WARREN — Defense attorneys who want to take execution off the table for a man they say is too intellectually limited to be put to death brought the first of two witnesses to the stand Monday in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court to testify about assessments she conducted on him.
Andre Williams, 49, was convicted Feb. 17, 1989, of the beating death of George Melnick, 65, of Warren, and the beating, blinding and attempted rape of Melnick’s wife, Katherine, since deceased.
The attacks took place during a break in and burglary Aug. 15, 1988, at their Wick Street SE home. A VCR and $2,000 cash were stolen.
The crime was discovered two days later when a concerned neighbor notified police that the couple hadn’t been seen. Police found an injured Katherine Melnick lying on the kitchen floor. George Melnick was found dead in a bedroom.
Williams, who unsuccessfully appealed his conviction and death sentence in the past, is being held in the Trumbull County Jail during what is called an Atkins hearing, which is expected to last all week, according to court officials.
A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Atkins vs. Virginia, declared executing a person with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution banning cruel and unusual punishment. States are allowed to set the standard for what constitutes an intellectual disability.
In the Ohio case State vs. Lott, the Supreme Court of Ohio determined judges, not juries, should rule in the hearings and the burden to prove the disability is on the defense. In this case, Judge W. Wyatt McKay is presiding over the hearing, and the defense is led by Alan Rossman, federal public defender for the Northern District of Ohio.
Cynthia Hartung, a professor in the psychology department at the University of Wyoming, said she interviewed Williams in January while he was at Chillicothe Correctional Institution at the request of public defenders. Hartung said she specializes in assessing intellectual disabilities diagnosed in childhood.
Rossman said Hartung is one of two witnesses he is calling in the matter. Trumbull County assistant prosecutor LuWayne Annos said prosecutors plan to present evidence through two witnesses of their own who say Williams is fit to face execution.
Judges have ruled IQ tests can’t be the only factor considered when it comes to the evidence presented in an Atkins hearing; officials have to follow a three prong test:
The defense has to prove a “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning; significant limitations in two or more adaptive skills, such as communication, self-care, and self-direction; and onset before the age of 18,” the ruling in state vs. Lott states.
Hartung said the average IQ is 100, and she determined Williams’ at 68, or in the range of 65 to 73. Hartung said it is unethical to pin IQ to one number, and psychology organizations use a range.
She said there is a test she conducts among the battery of tests to catch “malingering” or faking disability. Using an easy memory test that most people on all sides of the spectrum score high on, a person who is faking gets an abnormally low score. She said Williams showed no signs he was faking in the assessment.
Rossman said the defense has proof Williams’ educators documented his intellectual disability when he was a child and placed him in remedial classes.
The hearing is scheduled to continue today in McKay’s courtroom.