Before he went to prison, Anderson Hawthorne drove a car, held down a job, cared for a mentally ill brother and did chores in his family’s home in South-Central Los Angeles.
But Hawthorne also was regarded as slow in school, where he made it only to the ninth grade. He mispronounced simple words and had difficulty reading.
At age 12, he couldn’t count pocket change or read street names, and knew his ABCs only up to the letter M. He could write, but just his name and the date, and didn’t know his address or telephone number.
His IQ has been measured at 86 and 71; the average IQ is 100.
Now his life may depend on a question soon to be decided by California’s highest court: Is Anderson Hawthorne mentally retarded?
Hawthorne, 44, lives on California’s death row—sentenced in 1986 for two gang murders in Los Angeles.
Among his 640 fellow death-house residents are at least 30 other inmates who, their lawyers say, are mentally retarded. Many more are expected to make similar claims as they obtain lawyers.
Those claims could lead to the biggest exodus from death row in California since the state high court last struck down California’s death penalty—later reinstated—in 1976.
Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally retarded violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Dozens of people around the nation already have left death rows as a result, and many more cases are pending, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. Instead of being executed, convicted killers found to be mentally retarded are being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
But the high court’s ruling left uncertain who is truly retarded. Each state is supposed to develop its own rules.