Convicted Killer Cites Autism in Latest Death Penalty Appeal

By William Peacock, Esq. on September 09, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Despite more than a dozen stab wounds and a blow from a hammer to the head, Laurie VanLandingham née McKenna survived. The morning after she and her friend Jeanine Grinsell were attacked by a security guard during an unauthorized tour of Carolands Mansion in Hillsborough, California, Laurie crawled out of a ravine on her elbows, then flagged down a passing car. Jeanine, also alive at that point, later died on the operating table, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

That was February 1985. David Allen Raley, then a 23-year-old security guard, confessed most of the details to police officers when he was arrested. McKenna, then 17, testified against him as well. In the end, Raley was sentenced to death.

Twenty-eight years after his crime, and years after both the Ninth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court denied relief, he's trying one last tactic to avoid execution: claiming autism.

Retardation and IQ

The U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of "mentally retarded" inmates as cruel and unusual punishment. The question, however, is how does one define mental retardation?

The Court's opinion in Atkins v. Virginia declined to set a standard, leaving it up to states and lower courts to sort out the definition of the vague standard. The most commonly used standard is to prohibit the execution of those with an IQ below 70, though Raley's lawyers contend that IQ alone isn't the only indicator of developmental disability.

They argue that his autism should place him within the Atkins prohibition. Legal experts cited by the Mercury News, however, state that courts have been hesitant "to push to that next layer." Expanding beyond a pure IQ measurement would arguably introduce more vagueness to an already vague standard.

Prosecutors, meantime, argue that in addition to not falling below the IQ threshold, "the facts elicited at trial show evidence of premeditation, cunning and problem solving, all characteristics inconsistent with a diagnosis of intellectual disability."

Lethal Injection Issues

Regardless of the outcome of this last-ditch, "Hail Mary" petition, Raley may not be executed any time soon. California hasn't executed anyone in more than seven years as legal battles continue over the state's lethal injection methods. Earlier this year, the state dropped its battle to employ a new three-drug method for executing death row inmates, and will now attempt to move to a single drug method -- though the process could take years of administrative and court wrangling, reports the Los Angeles Times.

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