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As Execution Looms, Texas Debates Steinbeck And What's Mentally Impaired

Death row inmate Marvin Wilson.
Death row inmate Marvin Wilson.

There's a life-or-death drama unfolding in Texas tonight. It involves the death penalty, the Supreme Court and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

First the basics: Marvin Wilson, 54, is set to be executed by Texas tonight. He was convicted of the 1992 killing of a police informant. His attorneys however argue that a Supreme Court ban on the death penalty for the mentally impaired prohibits the state from going forward with tonight's execution and are asking the high court to step in.

The AP reports that lead lawyer Lee Kovarsky said Wilson has an IQ of 61, well below the 70 that marks "mental retardation." Not only that but his language and math skills "never progressed beyond an elementary school level."

Prosecutors, as expected, disagree. Edward Marshall, a Texas assistant attorney general, told the AP that Wilson has been "manipulative and deceitful" and his criminal career is proof enough of his competency.

The thing is that when the Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, it allowed states to decide what constituted mentally impaired. The Houston Chronicle reports that in a 2004 opinion, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals relied in part on the novel Of Mice and Men to determine a threshold.

"Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt. But, does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?" the court wrote.

Today, Steinbeck's son issued a statement objecting to using Lennie as a standard.

"I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous, and profoundly tragic. I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way," Thomas Steinbeck said, according to the Texas Tribune.

Steinbeck also sided with Wilson's attorneys saying that his father never meant for his work to be scientific.

"The character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability," Steinbeck said.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports for our Newscast unit that Wilson's attorney says there's one thing that is not in dispute.

"If the state goes ahead with tonight's execution," Kathy reports. "Wilson will have the grisly distinction of becoming the lowest IQ prisoner put to death in Texas."

Update at 6:12 p.m. ET. Supreme Court Refuses Stay:

The AP reports that the United States Supreme Court cleared the way for Wilson's execution to proceed.

"The Supreme Court denied his request for a stay of execution less than two hours before his scheduled 6 p.m. lethal injection."

That's 6 p.m. central time.

Update at 9:12 p.m. ET. Wilson Executed:

"Marvin Wilson, 54, was pronounced dead 14 minutes after his lethal injection began at the state prison in Huntsville," the AP reported.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.