From Special Education to Death Row

root - Posted on 31 December 1969

by Leroy Moore/Illin n Chillin

It is a well-known fact that African Americans are overrepresented in Special Education and in the prison system. When diagnosing our young people for Special Education, the schools do this swiftly; but when it comes down to saving their lives from state execution all of a sudden it is difficult to come to the conclusion of their disabilities.

African-American boys and young men have to go through intensive tests to be put in Special Education even though most of these tests are not culturally sensitive. These tests are part of our file (through state and federal disability laws) that follows us all through our school years and many times are used for our transition from school to community living i.e. work, housing and a support network of services to make our lives successful and independent.

After building a pile of records from school to receiving Social
Security Disability Income those caught in the prison system found that they are mysteriously cured as if their disabilities never existed.

Recently, in the case of Daryl Atkins, parents, prison advocates and lawyers advocated for the Supreme Court to rule that it is unconstitutional to execute people with developmental disabilities. Now states are running around like ants trying to get a professional to decide if a prisoner is qualified as a person with developmental disabilities, mental retardation to reduce their sentence to life in prison.

Atkins has been judged not to be mentally retarded by a York County jury which reached its verdict in the second day of deliberations. The Commonwealth of Virginia has set a December 2, 2005 execution date for Mr. Atkins. Did the state of Virginia go back to Mr. Atkins youth? Was he in Special Education? Did he receive any disability services and state disability income? The answer is yes, in Atkins’ case the court did go back to his youth and found that his grades were very poor but nothing could point to that Atkins was a Special Education student. This is not surprising today because many African American youth are not properly tested for special education and School Administration and School Boards are pressure to correct the overrepresentation of African American males in Special Education thus not to test them.

If yes, then that should be enough evidence to convince any jury White or Brown that prison system and the justice system can’t disappeared this man’s disability.

In many articles on Daryl Atkins’ case it keeps on mentioning that the court had mental health professionals to see if Atkins has a developmental disability. The African-American community never had a strong trust bond with the mental health profession and has a history of being overmedicated and mislabeled in this arena.

So is that a good way to determine if an African American young man has a disability? Secondly why mental health professionals not disabled and developmental disabled experts were asked to give their knowledge and perform test on Atkins level of disability, mental retardation? Mental Health disabilities and developmental disabilities are two different disabilities which sometimes the overlap but are separate.

It is doubtful that anybody in the Atkins’ case contacted Bob Perske of Connecticut, an author of the 1991 book, Unequal Justice about people with developmental disabilities in prison. He is the leading expert in the field of developmental disabilities, mental retardation in the justice system. He has spent over fifth teen years visiting inmates that are developmental disabled and been on many cases of death row cases involving people with developmental disabilities and has worked in the developmental disability field. Some were wrongly convicted and were released but many more have been put to death by the state. One case he has written about in detail is the Jerome Bowden case in Georgia of 1984. Jerome’s developmental disability, mental retardation was not found until after his execution.

This was detailed in a report by the Human Rights Watch’s entitled ‘The Death Penalty and Offenders with Mental Retardation’ of 2001, that says Jerome’s case was solely around his confession. Jerome Bowden was African American and his case was used in 2002 when the Supreme Court wrote that executions of persons with mental retardation are unconstitutional and handed down to that states to define mental retardation.

The 2001 Human Rights Watch Report and Mr. Perske’s book, Unequal Justice mentioned that individual with developmental disabilities, mental retardation are accustomed to pleasing people in authority by agreeing or adopting to their environment and answering questions that will bring satisfaction to authority figures. With this fact well documented it should have been blown Jerome and many other cases like Earl Washington
Jr. another African American young man with developmental disabilities that spent 18 years in jail and on death row all based on his confession of killing a White woman that was found out that his confession was forced, out of court.


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