The Arkansas Supreme Court yesterday rejected the appeal of death row inmate Karl Roberts, who was convicted of the 1999 capital murder of his 12-year-old niece, and sentenced to death in May 2000.

On appeal, his defense attorneys presented evidence that Roberts was schizophrenic, stemming from a traumatic brain injury, rendering him incompetent to stand trial.  Roberts’ attorneys also argued that he was ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment and Arkansas law because he is intellectually disabled, and likewise that the Eighth Amendment and the Arkansas constitution prohibit his execution because he is severely mentally ill.

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In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court upheld there a lower court ruling allowing his death sentence to go forward. “There is currently no categorical prohibition on sentencing a person with schizophrenia to the death penalty,” Justice Robin Wynne wrote for the majority.

The details of the crime are brutal: The trial record indicates that Roberts confessed to police that he drove to the house of his niece, Andria Brewer, when he knew that her parents were not home, told her to get in his truck, drove her ten miles away to a remote area, raped her, and then strangled her to death. (Brewer’s mother is state Rep. Rebecca Petty; the Republican lawmaker has served in the House since 2015.)

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The defense raised nine points on appeal. In addition to the arguments directly touching on his mental illness and intellectual disability, Roberts’ attorneys argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for not pursuing a change of venue given media attention in the Polk County, where the trial was held; that two jurors were biased, predisposed toward believing that Roberts should receive the death penalty; that the prosecutor made improper statements during closing argument and the courtroom atmosphere was prejudicial due to the victim’s family members wearing buttons with her picture; that Roberts’ trial counsel was ineffective for failing to respond to false testimony presented by prosecutors regarding his earnings and driving record; that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present mitigation during the penalty phase of the trial, such a history of abuse by his father, his near-death accident at age 12, his schizophrenia, and other factors; and that the jury failed to properly consider mitigating circumstances in sentencing him to death.

The Supreme Court rejected Roberts’ appeals on all these points in a 16-page opinion.

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Justice Josephine Hart, the lone dissenter, argued that Roberts was not competent to stand trial at the time of his prosecution. “The constitution prohibits the criminal prosecution of a defendant who is not competent to stand trial,” she wrote.

“The facts of this case are tragic and undisputed,” she wrote. “However, it is also undisputed that Roberts is sick. He suffers from schizophrenia. His diagnosis is contributed to and exacerbated by structural damage to the integrity of Roberts’s brain. As a child, 15 percent of Roberts’s brain was destroyed when a dump truck ran over him and left him in a coma. … All the evidence presented below supports the conclusion that Roberts was incompetent both at the time of the crime and for purposes of standing trial. … all the evidence—including detailed testimony by forensic experts, illustrative accounts from Roberts’s family and acquaintances about his life, and the difficulties explained by Roberts’s trial attorneys themselves—supports that Roberts suffered a psychotic break and was unable to assist his trial attorneys in his defense.”

Roberts’ attorneys will likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

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