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June 01, 2013

Mayer Brown Wins Life Sentence for Intellectually Disabled Death Row Prisoner

Victoria Edel

In 1997, volunteer lawyers from Mayer Brown agreed to represent Alphonso Stripling, a Georgia man on death row. The attorneys won a major victory in 2002 when they successfully convinced a court to vacate Mr. Stripling’s original death sentence and were granted a new sentencing hearing. On February 6, 2013, the lengthy court proceedings concluded after the State agreed to drop pursuit of the death penalty in exchange for Mr. Stripling accepting a sentence of life without parole.

In 2002, lawyers for Mayer Brown presented evidence to a Georgia court that Mr. Stripling is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for execution. Earlier that year, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the execution of mentally retarded prisoners violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Mayer Brown argued that trial counsel was ineffective because they failed to properly investigate Mr. Stripling’s intellectual disability. They also introduced evidence showing that that the State had improperly withheld Mr. Stripling’s parole records, which indicated that the state prison system found him to be mentally retarded at the age of 17.

A superior court judge vacated the sentence, ruling not only that this evidence necessitated a new judgment on the sentence but also that the Mayer Brown attorneys had proven Mr. Stripling’s mental retardation. However, in October 2003, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a jury — not a judge — would have to determine if Mr. Stripling had proven his mental retardation and decide on a sentence.

Georgia has the strictest standard in the nation for proving mental retardation in capital murder trials. A defendant must prove he is mentally retarded “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Most other states use a lower standard of “more likely than not” when considering these claims. Mayer Brown attorneys brought a challenge to the constitutionality of the Georgia standard, but this was rejected by the George Supreme Court in a 6-1 decision. The lone dissenter, Justice Robert Benham, wrote, “Are we so focused on maximizing the absolute penalty of death that we would risk wrongfully executing someone with a clinically identified mental disability? To do so is an impermissible violation of our Constitution and a senseless assault against morality and human decency.”

Mayer Brown attorneys spent years compiling evidence that would satisfy Georgia’s high standard of proof, as evidentiary and legal disputes between the defense and prosecution continued to push back the court-ordered resentencing hearing. Through persistence and dedication to the case, they eventually persuaded the State to agree to a plea, and in February 2013 Mr. Stripling was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Victoria Edel