Special Judge Richard McKenzie ruled this morning that capital murder suspect Christopher Baxter is not eligible for a death penalty because he suffers from an intellectual disability, also referred to as mental retardation.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that anyone with an IQ of 70 or less would not be eligible for the death penalty. The state Supreme Court later provided for a five-point deviation, essentially requiring that a person’s IQ be 75 or less to be ineligible for a death sentence.
In addition, the judge ruled that Baxter’s statements to authorities after his arrest could be presented at trial.
Baxter, 26, and Brandy Nicole Williams, 20, are charged with capital murder in the July 10, 2010, killing of George County Sheriff Garry Welford.
Welford, 63, was struck by a pickup truck July 21, 2010, on Bexley Road, just south of U.S. 98, and pronounced dead that afternoon at the University of South Alabama Medical Center in Mobile.
After an all-night manhunt, Williams and Baxter were captured the following morning at a mobile home about 6 miles north of where Welford was struck.
The State Supreme Court appointed McKenzie, a retired Hattiesburg judge, to hear the case after local judges recused themselves.
Clinical psychologists C. Gerald O'Brien and William Criss Lott testified earlier this month that Baxter tests as mentally retarded or borderline on IQ tests and meets other criteria that may prevent him from facing the death penalty.
O'Brien said Baxter tested for an IQ of 66, while Lott said Baxter scored 75 on the intelligence test he administered. State and federal Supreme Court rulings ban the death penalty for those who are intellectually disabled. An IQ of 70 is considered mentally retarded.
Defense attorney Thomas Fortner said, "The bottom line is, both doctors agree in their professional opinion and to within a reasonable degree of certainty that Chris Baxter meets guidelines of Atkins (a U.S. Supreme Court case) and meets the guidelines of Chase v. State (a Mississippi case) to be declared to be mentally retarded or intellectually disabled to the extent he should not be subjected to the death penalty."
District Attorney Tony Lawrence said that while the experts had agreed, the burden is placed on the judge to make a factual finding on rules that "placed too much uncertainty in the death penalty arena."
Williams' trial is set for Aug. 27 in Lafayette County.
(sources: Sun Herald & Mississippi Press)