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Texas court tosses death sentence in police killing due to intellectual disability

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The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals changed a the sentence of convicted police officer's killer from the death penalty to life in prison without parole after he was found to be intellectually disabled. Credit: Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

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The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday again ordered an inmate removed from death row and sentenced him to life in prison without parole after he was found to be intellectually disabled.

The judges previously rejected 43-year-old Juan Lizcano’s intellectual disability claim but reconsidered it after the U.S. Supreme Court forced the Texas court in 2017 to change its method to determine if death penalty inmates were intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution. At least three other Texas death row inmates have had their sentences reduced since the high court’s ruling.

Lizcano was found guilty and sentenced to death in the 2005 fatal shooting of Dallas police officer Brian Jackson, 28, during a domestic violence call, according to court records. At his trial in 2007, evidence was raised on his mental deficits, but the jury still sentenced him to death.

Since 2002, the Supreme Court has held that people with intellectual disabilities can’t be executed, but states were left to come up with their own methods of defining the condition. The Court of Criminal Appeals created its own test, but in a 2017 ruling, the nation’s high court struck it down as unconstitutional because it used decades-old medical standards and a set of nonclinical questions the Supreme Court said advanced stereotypes, including how well an inmate could lie.

After the ruling, the Texas court decided on its own to reconsider Lizcano’s recently rejected appeal arguing he was intellectually disabled, sending the case back to Dallas County to weigh evidence and come up with a recommendation on whether Lizcano’s sentence should be changed or not.

Court filings note that Lizcano had an IQ score below what is generally considered for intellectual disability diagnoses, plus his attorneys have highlighted numerous other deficits as a child and in his adulthood. As a child, Lizcano had trouble completing chores, fell behind in school and couldn’t tell stories or express himself well, according to a court filing. As an adult, he struggles to communicate and maintain eye contact and had difficulties completing landscaping work, his attorneys wrote.

The Dallas court, along with the progressive district attorney, agreed last year that Lizcano should not be executed for the crime. On Wednesday, the Court of Criminal Appeals accepted the recommendation and changed his sentence. Since he was sentenced after 2005, when Texas began implementing sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole, Lizcano will never be eligible for release under the new sentence.

Bobby Moore, Pedro Sosa and Robert Campbell have all also been taken off death row since the Supreme Court ruled against Texas practices on intellectual disability. Moore, whose case was the one that came before the high court, was released from prison on parole last month, 40 years after he was sentenced to death.