Thirty-five years ago, Donald Griffin was given the death penalty for raping and murdering his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Janice Kelly Wilson, whose mutilated body was found alongside a rural road north of Kerman near the San Joaquin River.
On Wednesday, Griffin’s lawyers were in Fresno County Superior Court, asking a judge to spare his life because he is intellectually disabled.
The hearing in Judge Wayne Ellison’s courtroom is the first of its kind for Fresno County, the product of a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling called Atkins v. Virginia that says executing mentally disabled individuals violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In their ruling, the justices said it would be up to judges in each state to define who is intellectually disabled.
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Griffin, who is on death row in San Quentin State Prison, didn’t attend Tuesday’s hearing. Sacramento attorney Mary McCombs, a supervising deputy in the state Public Defender’s Office, and San Francisco attorney Michael Laurence, executive director of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, represented him.
They contend Griffin has been intellectually disabled since childhood.
Prosecutors Robert Mangano of the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office and George Hendrickson of the Attorney General’s Office, however, contend that while Griffin may be borderline mentally disabled, he still knew what he was doing when he raped and killed his stepdaughter, who was known as Kelly, in December 1979.
The hearing is expected to take three weeks because both sides plan to call experts — and possibly Griffin’s relatives — to the witness stand to determine whether the inmate, now 66, is intellectually disabled.
There is no price tag on justice for innocent victims
Steve Wright, assistant Fresno County district attorney
The stakes are high for the prosecution because if Ellison finds Griffin mentally disabled, Griffin won’t be executed. Instead, he will spend the rest of his life in prison, a goal that McCombs said she has been fighting for years.
During a break Wednesday, McCombs said she asked prosecutors several times to let Griffin spend the rest of his life in prison, but the offers were rejected.
“The District Attorney’s Office has a propensity to waste taxpayers’ money because, no matter what happens here, Griffin will never be executed,” McCombs said. That’s because he has not exhausted all of his state and federal appeals, she said.
Despite what McCombs says, prosecutors are sticking to their plan to keep Griffin on death row, said Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright.
“We are proceeding on this case because the citizens of Fresno County who sat on the jury and listened to the evidence decided that the death penalty is the appropriate and just punishment,” Wright said.
“There is no price tag on justice for innocent victims,” he said.
Kelly’s mutilated body was found by a motorist Dec. 13, 1979. The girl had been raped, sodomized, stabbed in the neck, strangled and cut open with a hunting knife, prosecutors said.
Griffin was 30 and had no prior criminal record when he was first tried, convicted and sentenced to death for Kelly’s murder in 1980. Though he admitted the murder, he denied sexually assaulting the girl.
Since then his case has been tangled in a lengthy legal fight.
In 1988, the California Supreme Court upheld the conviction, but overturned the death sentence, ruling that the jury in the 1980 trial was wrongly told that if they sentenced Griffin to life in prison without possibility of parole, the governor could modify that sentence so Griffin eventually could be paroled.
In his second trial in 1992, a new jury gave Griffin the death penalty again. And 12 years later, the California Supreme Court upheld Griffin’s death sentence.
A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling called Atkins v. Virginia generally says executing intellectually disabled individuals violates America’s Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment
But Griffin’s case is now back in a Fresno courtroom because in 2008 the state’s high court said he presented enough evidence to qualify for a hearing under the Atkins ruling.
Court records say Griffin suffered physical abuse as a child under his father’s harsh discipline. In addition, he was subjected to “severe and violent sexual abuse” within his extended family, the documents say.
On Wednesday, McCombs said there is ample evidence to prove Griffin has been intellectually disabled since childhood. Her witnesses include J. Gregory Olley, a professor at the University of North Carolina and expert in the field of forensic psychology as it relates to intellectual disability and the death penalty; and Daniel Reschly, a professor of education and psychology in Peabody College at Vanderbilt University and expert on special education.
Olley testified Wednesday that Griffin was the product of an impoverished home. His parents were cotton pickers. Griffin could not read while growing up in the Tranquility area and barely does it at first-grade level today, Olley said.
“He was a loner and withdrawn. He was disheveled in his appearance,” Olley testified.
Because of his speech impediment, he was reluctant to go to school. “Kids would call him dummy and retard,” the psychologist told the judge. Though he was friendly, he could not find friends because he was not a good conversationalist, Olley said.
For the penalty phase of his first criminal trial, Griffin was tested when he was his 30s.
Olley testified that the testing revealed that Griffin was better at solving problems that he could see or touch. But he could not solve abstract problems or problems dealing with words, Olley testified.
On cross-examination, Mangano suggested that Griffin was smart enough to plan Kelly’s murder. But Olley said that wasn’t the case; Griffin had the victim’s blood on his shoes, clothing and truck. Authorities also apprehended Griffin quickly, Olley testified.
Griffin’s parents are dead, but a key piece of evidence came from his mother, Lola, who testified in the 1980 trial. Olley testified that Griffin’s mother described him “as a slow student” who was separated from other students and put in a special class for intellectually disabled students.
“But did she ever say her son was mentally retarded or diagnosed as mentally retarded?” Mangano asked.
No, Olley replied. But back then, “slow” meant mental retardation, he said. “People used ‘slow’ to avoid the stigmatization of mental retardation,” Olley testified.