June 05, 2020 Success Stories

Jose Rivera

Represented by Vinson & Elkins LLP

On March 31, 2006, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted habeas relief to Jose Rivera. Disagreeing with the decision of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the district court ruled that Jose was intellectually disabled. This finding was based on multiple factors, including Jose’s IQ test scores and educational history. 

Jose was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing a young boy. There was no physical evidence connecting Jose to the crime; instead, he was convicted based on statements that both he and his codefendant made to investigators. The codefendant received a life sentence and later recanted her statement about Jose’s involvement, giving a detailed account of how she killed the boy on her own. Jose has long maintained that his “confession” was the result of beatings and coercion by the police. 

Volunteer attorneys from Vinson & Elkins uncovered significant evidence of Jose’s intellectual disability, casting further doubt on the voluntariness and accuracy of Jose’s confession. Jose dropped out of school at age 17, having only reached ninth grade. At age 14, he was diagnosed as having attained a first-grade level of proficiency in reading, writing, and math. As an adult, Jose was found to be functioning at the level of a 10-year-old. He also had limitations in adaptive functioning. There was evidence that Jose was always wore unclean clothes, slept outside underneath his house, could not play games or read, consistently had academic problems, and was unemployed. The district court found that Jose displayed adaptive deficits prior to the age of 18 in the areas of self-care, social skills, home living, and functional academics. 

Because he was found to be intellectually disabled, the court ruled that he could not be executed and ordered that he be resentenced to life without parole. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding of intellectual disability, but it reversed on procedural grounds related to the timeliness of his petition for relief and remanded the case for further proceedings, which are ongoing. Even though the courts have concluded that he should be ineligible for execution based on his intellectual disability, Jose remains on death row today, and the fight to save his life continues.