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Defendant uses mental disability as defense against death penalty sentence

Thursday, November 5, 2009 | 7:48 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — The attorney for a Missouri man sentenced to death for a 1992 killing urged theMissouri Supreme Court on Thursday to spare his client, saying he is mentally disabled.

Andrew Lyons, 52, was given two death sentences in 1996 for killing his girlfriend, Bridgette Harris, and her mother, Evelyn Sparks. Lyons also was sentenced to seven years in prison for killing his 11-month-old son Dontay Harris.

The death sentence for killing Sparks was lifted in 2007 because it was imposed by a judge after the jury deadlocked on whether Lyons should be executed or sentenced to life in prison.

At issue in Thursday's arguments was whether Lyons is mentally disabled and thus ineligible for the death penalty because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the mentally disabled cannot be executed. A judge appointed by the state Supreme Court in 2007 to evaluate the case concluded that Lyons is mentally disabled.

But Missouri Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke said Thursday the state believes Lyons is not legally mentally disabled and should be eligible for execution.

"He is not mentally retarded today," Hawke said.

Under Missouri law, to be considered mentally disabled, a person must have substantial behavioral limitations and intelligence far below average, and there must be documentation of those conditions before he or she turns 18 years old.

Lyons' attorney, Fred Duchardt, said family members have stated that Lyons depended on them to get jobs, needed to live with others, struggled to learn tasks such as riding a bike and attended special education classes. Tests show that Lyons cannot write, reads at a first-grade level and can only understand things read to him at a fourth-grade level.

Duchardt said Lyons has scored low on intelligence and developmental tests taken as an adult and has been and always will be mentally disabled.

"This man is functioning on a mentally retarded level and has dire inabilities in these areas," Duchardt said.

But the record is not clear-cut.

Public school records in Cape Girardeau that could have revealed evidence that Lyons showed signs of mental disability before turning 18 were destroyed. Records that remain show that in 1973, he had poor school attendance and failing or incomplete grades.

Duchardt said the statements from family members show that Lyons had developmental problems his entire life.

But Hawke contended that without records and intelligence tests from before Lyons' 18th birthday, Lyons cannot be considered mentally disabled.

That argument led some judges on the seven-member court to question whether Missouri's law required records and intelligence test results or simply evidence of mental disability as a child.

"So if there's a fire and it destroys all the records and they're not there, may we execute someone because there's no 'paper documentation' about this person's mental retardation before the age of 18?" Judge Richard Teitelman asked.

Where results from intelligence tests exist, there are contradictions. Intelligence tests taken in 1992 and 1998 showed that Lyons scored higher than the range for the mentally disabled. In later tests, he scored within the range.

Hawke said the earlier — and higher — tests should be examined because they were administered closer to when Lyons was 18. In his written argument, Hawke said the higher scores on the intelligence tests better indicate Lyons' potential.

"If the question were how fast can a car go, and the various measurements were 84, 81, 67 and 61 miles per hour, the number 84 best answers the question of how fast that car can go," Hawke said. 

Duchardt said the test results are not supposed to fluctuate and outside factors could have led to the higher scores. For example, in one test, the result was raised because Lyons turned 35 about a month before the exam. If he had taken the test before his birthday, the score would have been lower.

 


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