After week of testimony, judge to decide if Chesnee man can face death penalty
02/21/2014 11:39 PM
02/21/2014 11:49 PM
The psychologists have had their say. Now Circuit Judge Roger Couch will decide whether Ricky Lee Blackwell Sr. can face the death penalty if he's convicted of kidnapping and murder.
The 55-year-old Chesnee man is accused of killing Heather Brooke Center. Blackwell's ex-wife told officers that Blackwell placed Brooke, 8, in a headlock and shot her multiple times in July 2009.
Blackwell also shot himself. While Blackwell was hospitalized for the self-inflicted gunshot, he received a notification that prosecutors would seek the death penalty.
Blackwell's attorneys, William McGuire with the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense and Seventh Circuit Public Defender Clay Allen, argue that Blackwell has an intellectual disability that makes him ineligible for the death penalty if he's convicted.
Blackwell's three-day Atkins Hearing ended Friday. An Atkins Hearing is based on a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that it is unconstitutional to execute someone with an intellectual disability.
An expert for the defense, forensic psychologist Ginger Calloway, testified that Blackwell meets criteria for someone with intellectual disability – an IQ score of 63, deficits in "adaptive functioning" and indications that he had mild intellectual disability prior to age 18. The last is crucial for Blackwell to be found ineligible for execution.
Calloway testified she spent about two years amassing data on Blackwell. She evaluated him, interviewed family members, as well as a minister, neighbor, former supervisor and employer. She also examined Blackwell's school and employment records.
Calloway testified that Blackwell's math and reading skills ranged between the fifth- and seventh-grade level at age 18.
Blackwell dropped out of Chesnee High School in his junior year and later held a series of jobs, including working as a truck driver and forklift operator.
The defense said Blackwell was terminated after truck accidents, never held a supervisory position or trained others, indicating his limited intellectual capacity. The prosecution argued that Blackwell was rehired by former employers and was able to drive tractor trailers in New York, Texas and other states.
Two experts in forensic psychology were ordered to evaluate Blackwell.
Kimberly Harrison testified Wednesday that Blackwell was competent to stand trial when she evaluated him last April and said he had no significant symptoms of a mental illness or "retardation." Gordon Brown evaluated Blackwell in November and reached the same conclusion.
Brown said Blackwell scored an IQ of 68. He said nothing about Blackwell's behavior appeared out of the ordinary.
It was Brown's impression that Blackwell was on track to graduate high school. While on the stand, Brown read a performance review from one of Blackwell's former employers that stated Blackwell "met expectations in the areas of initiative and communication and that he exceeded expectations in the areas of knowledge and understanding, quality, safety, attendance and appearance." Blackwell, according to the review, needed improvement in proper lifting techniques and communicating with peers and supervisors.
Brown said Blackwell's ability to find and hold multiple jobs is evidence that he's able to learn.
"The difficulty in Mr. Blackwell's case, as with a lot of the Atkins cases that we have, is we don't have clear data from that period. Ideally, I'd like to have some school psychological evaluation, including a test of intelligence, a test of adaptive functioning, educational placement in a program for the intellectually disabled," Brown said.
Deputy Solicitor Derrick Bulsa pointed out that Blackwell held numerous jobs and had a family.
"Based on the totality of the data that you had and his life history, what is your opinion, doctor, of his mental retardation – if he is mentally retarded?" Bulsa asked.
"It is my opinion that does not meet the criteria," Brown said.
Under cross examination by McGuire, Brown agreed that IQ remains generally constant through life, absent traumatic events.
There was testimony that Blackwell had used drugs, was in a four-wheeler accident and diagnosed with cancer. Brown testified that such environmental factors could impact IQ but found no evidence that such factors affected Blackwell.
Calloway testified that Blackwell's ex-wife, Angela, managed the household, including finances. Testimony was offered that Blackwell was unable to care for himself or maintain the household after she left him. Calloway said Blackwell's parents cared for him.
Seventh Circuit Solicitor Barry Barnette questioned how Blackwell's father – a man Calloway testified had an IQ of 60 – could care for Blackwell. "The level of IQ doesn't always correlate one-on-one with the achievements in life," Calloway said.
Blackwell has been diagnosed with major depressive episodes and was committed to a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt.
Brown testified that Blackwell's suicide attempt could have stemmed from depression, and Blackwell's behavior after Angela left did not necessarily mean he was incapable of running the household.
McGuire asked Couch to reject Brown's testimony and report based on the "shortcomings and methodology" of Brown's investigation. McGuire said he wasn't criticizing Brown, but he said the psychologist had limitations, including time, manpower and resources. McGuire said the defense did a "thorough Atkins investigation."
McGuire also said Brown's reliance on Harrison's conclusion was "incorrect as a matter of law."
"She really did nothing. So, (Brown) relied on almost nothing – just kind of a clinician's gut just from eyeballing somebody," McGuire said of Harrison's evaluation.
"She gave no tests," McGuire said.
Brown's report, he said, was "a little island of red flags."
Speaking of "red flags," Barnette argued that Calloway admitted to making mistakes in her report.
Barnette said there was no mention of mental retardation in any of Blackwell's medical records. Barnette also said Blackwell has been through psychiatric treatment and medical treatment and there was no indication of mental retardation, until Blackwell was facing the death penalty.
Barnette said the defense wanted to discard Blackwell's school work, IQ scores ranging from 68 to 87, and said Blackwell may have been placed last in his class because he dropped out of school.
Barnette criticized Calloway's testing as subjective and said her evaluation "just doesn't add up." Barnette said she did not review "pertinent" jail records.
"They don't want to deal with the crime itself — what happened that day," Barnette said.
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