Intellectual Disability and the Death Penalty

Current Issues and Controversies

by Marc J. Tassé and John H. Blume


People with intellectual disability face a higher risk of wrongful convictions. How should this important issue be addressed?

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Cover image for Intellectual Disability and the Death Penalty

December 2017


Pages 176
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics Psychology/Abnormal
  Current Events and Issues/Law and Crime

Providing key information for students or professionals in the fields of criminology, education, psychology, law, and law enforcement, this book documents the legal and clinical aspects of the issues related to intellectual disability and the death penalty.

Written by two nationally recognized experts, this book provides a comprehensive review of the legal and clinical aspects of the death penalty as it relates to intellectual disability. First, the facts: people with intellectual disability may falsely confess to a crime because they want to please the authorities, and they are often less able than others to work with lawyers to prepare a defense. In addition, because of the stigma attached to intellectual disability, affected individuals often become adept at hiding it, even from their attorney, not understanding the condition's importance to the outcome of their case.

Having explained such harsh realities and presented a comprehensive review of what intellectual disability is, the book focuses on the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court Atkins v. Virginia decision granting a death penalty exemption to individuals with intellectual disability. It outlines best practice regarding the determination of intellectual disability and discusses qualifications needed for experts in such cases. Related issues such as common misconceptions regarding people with intellectual disability, race, socioeconomic status, and the status of foreign nationals as it relates to the death penalty and intellectual disability are discussed as well. A must-have resource for prosecutors, defense lawyers, and clinicians providing expert testimony in death penalty cases, this book will also prove absorbing reading for anyone concerned about this troubling issue.


  • Provides a comprehensive review of the legal and clinical aspects of the death penalty and intellectual disability
  • Offers a detailed discussion of the Supreme court decision in Atkins v. Virginia as well as a review of court decisions since that 2002 ruling
  • Details the diagnostic issues related to determination of intellectual disability, such as the assessment of intellectual functioning, adaptive behavior, and age of onset
  • Shares best practices in clinical assessment and important forensic matters that must be considered
Author Info

Marc J. Tassé, PhD, is professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry and director of The Ohio State University Nisonger Center, a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. He is also a licensed psychologist. His experience includes 25 years conducting research and providing clinical services in the field of intellectual disability (ID), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and related developmental disabilities (DD). He has conducted 200+ trainings, workshops, and presentations related to ID, ASD, and related developmental disabilities. Tassé is a fellow of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), American Psychological Association (APA), and the International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IASSIDD). He is also a past president of the AAIDD. His publications include more than 100 articles in peer-reviewed journals as well as book chapters and books in the area of intellectual and developmental disabilities. He is a coauthor of the AAIDD (2002 and 2010) Terminology and Classification Manual and AAIDD User's Guide as well as senior author of the Diagnostic Adaptive Behavior Scale. He has also coauthored several other standardized assessment instruments in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities, including the assessment of adaptive behavior, problem behavior, and support needs. Tassé has consulted and testified in a number of capital cases involving intellectual disability determination.

John H. Blume is the Samuel F. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques at Cornell Law School, where he teaches criminal procedure, evidence, and federal appellate practice and supervises the Capital Punishment and Juvenile Justice Clinics. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Yale Divinity School, and Yale Law School, he clerked for the Hon. Thomas A. Clark (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit). Following several years in private practice, Blume became executive director of the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center, a position which he held until joining the Cornell Law School faculty. Blume is a coauthor of A Modern Approach to Evidence: Text, Problems, Transcripts and Cases and the Federal Habeas Corpus Update and is coeditor of Death Penalty Stories. He has also published numerous book chapters and law review articles in the fields of capital punishment, habeas corpus, criminal procedure, and evidence. Blume has argued eight cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and has been co-counsel or amicus curiae counsel in numerous other Supreme Court cases. Additionally, he has argued cases in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits and has litigated more than 50 capital cases at trial, on direct appeal, and in state and federal post-conviction proceedings. Since 1996, Blume has served as Habeas Assistance and Training Counsel and in that capacity consults with the Defender Services Division of the United States Courts on matters related to capital habeas representation.



"No literature considers this many cases post Atkins. The book finishes by examining the capital punishment landscape after Atkins, yet another topic not heavily researched. Legal scholars would be wise to read Intellectual Disability and the Death Penalty as it can assist in understanding both the law and the culture surrounding the death penalty. This is an important book best suited for anyone generally interested in issues related to capital punishment in the U.S. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals."Choice

"This highly useful reference deserves a place on the bookshelf of every capital defense lawyer and mitigation specialist, regardless of whether they suspect a current client meets the criteria for intellectual disability. . . . The authors are well-known and respected practitioners in their respective fields. . . . Their 2018 joint effort is a solid introduction to the subject of intellectual disability in death penalty cases . . . especially for those seeking a concise introduction, with some advanced discussions of the state of the law as well as the state of affairs in the assessment of intellectual disability, this volume will be an essential part of their preparation. The book is disarmingly small in size--and therefore a convenient source to take to court or hearings. It is a readable and authoritative introduction to the complex subject of intellectual disability and therefore essential reading for capital defense teams before they begin consulting experts on the subject or deciding whether to raise the claim . . . this book is well worth the investment. It is one of those volumes to which any active capital defender should have access." National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

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