The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled 6-0 in Commonwealth v. VanDivner that a defendant whose intellectual impairments interfere with his ability to cognitively adapt is mentally incompetent as regards the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Under SCOTUS precedent Atkins v. Virginia, such an individual may not be put to death. This case also serves as a reminder that a death penalty case which comes to the Court under its exclusive appellate jurisdiction over death penalty cases is remanded upon the Court’s ruling that the death penalty is inapposite for further proceedings in the Superior Court.
The case comes as a PCRA petition, arguing that his counsel was ineffective in failing to appropriately argue the evidence in regard to his mental deficiencies before age 18.
Todd: Interaction Between the First Two Prongs of the Miller test is Key to Inquiry
Speaking for the unanimous 6-0 majority, Justice Todd rules that VanDivner met the three part “Miller” test for mental incapacity, and that trial counsel’s failure to flesh out VanDivner’s significant limitations rendered him ineffective under Strickland.
In Com v. Miller, 585 Pa. 144 (2005), SCOPA established a three part test for determining mental incapacity for Eighth Amendment purposes:
- Limited intellectual functioning;
- Significant adaptive limitations;
- Onset prior to age 18.
There is no “IQ cutoff” score to determine limited intellectual functioning, but rather, the “interaction” between the individual’s intellectual limitations and adaptive limitations determines the degree of incapacitation under this inquiry. Furthermore, the assessment is based on an individual’s “typical” rather than maximum performance. VanDivner’s voluminous evidence included testimony of his limitations prior to age 18, along with the substantial ways that he was limited, not only in IQ, but in his behavioral and adaptive abilities. The Court rules, therefore, that
Upon concluding that VanDivner is not eligible for the death penalty, the Court reclassifies the case as non-capital and sends it to the Superior Court for consideration of VanDivner’s other claims regarding his conviction.
CJ Saylor: Atkins justifies vacating sentence without ineffective assistance
Chief Justice Saylor concurs, arguing that a violation of the Eighth Amendment justifies vacating a sentence without a showing of ineffective assistance of counsel. Saylor would not use ineffective assistance as an “overlay” to get to the desired result but, upon a showing of a constitutionally-unsound death penalty verdict, would vacate the sentence on substantive grounds, namely, the imposition of sentence upon a mentally incompetent defendant.
Conclusion: Miller test reaffirmed
This case doesn’t exactly set new precedent or break new ground. The Miller test for mental incompetence has been the law in Pennsylvania for some time. But this case reaffirms the required connection between deficient IQ and cognitive adaptability. The case also emphasizes that an individual’s cognitive weaknesses are measured by this test, not the individual’s strengths. Put differently, someone who has ups and downs should be measured according to their down days, and the evidence considered in light of how low they can go.
VanDivner avoids the death penalty, and lives to fight another day in the lower courts over his underlying murder conviction.