John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is familiar to many readers. A high school English staple, the novella follows two migrant workers during the Great Depression: shrewd George and developmentally disabled Lennie. Lennie had a heart of gold but didn’t know his own strength, and death came frequently at his guileless but crushing touch. At the end of the story, Lennie accidentally murders a woman, and George kills him humanely before he can face a cruel justice he wouldn’t have been able to understand.
The state of Texas, when determining their criteria of those eligible to receive capital punishment, seized quite naturally on this character, much to the consternation of Steinbeck’s son. In 2002, the US Supreme Court ruled that “mentally retarded” people cannot be executed, but it left the precise definition of “retarded” open-ended so that each state could determine its own standard. Most sources would claim retardation comes into play whenever someone possesses an IQ of less than 70.
Unfortunately, determining mental ability through use of an unscientific fictional character allows for the system to be easily manipulated. On August 7, 2012, the state of Texas executed Marvin Lee Wilson, a murderer who possessed an IQ of just 61—despite a massive public backlash. The issue has come into play throughout the US. On January 24, 1992, Ricky Ray Rector was executed for the murder of a police officer. Just after shooting Officer Robert Martin, Rector attempted to commit suicide, firing a bullet into his brain that essentially lobotomized him. His mental function deteriorated so much that during his last meal, he told guards that he would save his dessert “for later.” In Georgia, a battle rages over the life of Warren Lee Hill, a man with an IQ of 70 who has been condemned to death. The US Supreme Court has refused to hear his claims.