ATLANTA — Georgia’s highest court on Tuesday upheld a man’s death sentence for killing his ex-fiancée’s adult son, saying he failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is intellectually disabled.
Rodney Young, 53, was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the 2008 slaying of Gary Jones in Covington. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld his convictions and sentences, though some of the justices questioned the constitutionality of the state’s tough burden of proof of intellectual disability to avoid execution.
Georgia in 1988 was the first state to pass a law prohibiting the execution of intellectually disabled people, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled that the execution of intellectually disabled people is unconstitutional. But the nation’s highest court left it up to the states to determine the level of proof required.
Georgia has the toughest standard in the nation for proving that someone is ineligible for execution because of intellectual disability, requiring it to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Chief Justice Harold Melton wrote in an opinion released Tuesday that Young failed to meet that bar.
“We are not called upon here to make a pronouncement on the wisdom of Georgia’s burden of proof from a policy perspective, and to do so would be beyond this Court’s constitutional power,” Melton wrote. “Instead, we are called upon to apply the Georgia Constitution and the United States Constitution.”
Brian Stull, a lawyer with the ACLU Capital Punishment project who represents Young, called the Georgia high court’s ruling “devastating.”
“Georgia’s uniquely high and onerous burden means that people with intellectual disability will be executed,” he said in an emailed statement, adding that Young’s legal team plans to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and “ask it to correct the injustices coming out of Georgia once and for all.”
Three other justices joined Melton’s opinion completely, and all but one agreed with its ultimate result. Presiding Justice David Nahmias wrote a concurring opinion, joined by two other justices, saying that while he agrees with upholding Young’s convictions and sentences, he doesn’t agree with all of Melton’s analysis. Justice Charlie Bethel dissented.
Nahmias wrote that he is not confident that Georgia’s unique law requiring that intellectual disability be proven beyond a reasonable doubt has “continued viability” under the U.S. Constitution. He wrote that if the U.S. Supreme Court says the Georgia high court ruled incorrectly, he would “obediently accept and forthrightly apply such a decision.”
Nahmias also wrote that Young and his advocates could ask Georgia legislators to change the burden of proof required by law in light of “extensive developments in the science of intellectual disability and the law in this area” in the past three decades. He wrote that “if the General Assembly takes a further humane step with regard to criminal defendants who are potentially intellectually disabled, I would embrace that change.”
In his dissenting opinion, Bethel wrote that he would send Young’s case back to the trial court for a new jury trial on the question of intellectual disability and resentencing consistent with the outcome of that trial.
Bethel cited a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which, he wrote, “we have learned that States are not authorized to enforce legislative rules or judicial tests that by design or operation create ‘an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.’” With Georgia’s highest-in-the-nation standard of proof, “the existence of such a risk seems plain,” he wrote.
Young, who lived in New Jersey, had been in a relationship with Jones’ mother, Doris Jones. Doris Jones had moved to New Jersey to be with Young, but they fought often and she moved back to Georgia and lived with her son, court documents say. Young often wrote to her to ask her to come back.
In March 2008, he went to Georgia and stayed with his half-sister and her husband, driving repeatedly to Gary Jones’ house, where Doris Jones was staying, according to evidence and testimony.
Late the night of March 30, 2008, Doris Jones discovered her son’s body at his home. He was tied to a chair with a bloody knife and hammer next to his body. He had multiple injuries, including skull fractures.
At trial, Young’s attorneys tried to convince the jury he was intellectually disabled, but a jury in February 2012 convicted him on all charges against him and recommended the death penalty.