Mentally Disabled Youth with IQ Of 47, Allowed to Plead Guilty to Sexual Assault of a Child, Judge Orders Sentences to be Served Consecutively
By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
The jury said it did not like the sentencing options made available to it. The judge said he was not pleased that he had to sentence an 18-year-old Paris, Texas teenager to 100 years in prison. The district attorney said he “sympathized” with teenager’s situation but it had to be remembered that he “committed a violent sexual crime against a little boy.”
What exactly did Aaron Hart do? A neighbor said she discovered the mentally retarded teenager, who has an IQ of 47, fondling her stepson last November. Hart was arrested and charged with five counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency with a child.
Hart’s attorney allowed the mentally disabled youth to plead guilty at the punishment phase of his trial but elected to have the jury assess punishment at the penalty phase. After hearing all the evidence, jurors were not convinced that prison was the best option for Hart. They sent notes to the judge requesting guidance on possible alternatives to imprisonment. Jurors told the media following the trial that the judge’s responses did not provide them with any “clear answers.” They assumed the judge would impose concurrent sentences on the five convictions.
But that is not what the judge did. He sentenced Hart to 5-year terms on two counts and 30-year terms on three counts. The judge ordered the sentences to be served consecutively for a total of 100 years. Lamar Count Judge Eric Clifford’s offered the lame excuse that he didn’t believe he had any other sentencing options because “in the state of Texas, there isn’t a whole lot you can do with people like him.”
This case begs appellate intervention. Media reports did not explain why his attorney allowed him to plead guilty at the guilt phase. The guilty plea itself raises serious questions. Hart never learned how to read or write and has had a 47 IQ since he was a child. “He couldn’t understand the seriousness of what he did,” Aaron’s father Robert told the Dallas Morning News. “I never dreamed they would think about sending him to prison. When they said 100 years—it was terror, pure terror, to me.”
What does the law say?
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has defined mental retardation as a disability characterized by: 1) “significantly subaverage” general intellectu8al functioning; 2) accompanied by “related” limitations in adaptive functioning; 3) the onset of which occurs prior to the age 16. 1/
With a 47 IQ, young Aaron Hart certainly fell within this definition of mental retardation. While Texas law presumes that a criminal defendant is mentally competent to stand trial unless incompetence is proven by a preponderance of the evidence, Article 46B.003(b) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, state law also prohibits a trial court from accepting a guilty plea unless it appears the defendant is mentally competent, Article 26.13(b) of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Article 46B.003 of the Code of Criminal Procedure states that a criminal defendant is incompetent to stand trial if he/she lacks the ability to confer with his/her attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding of the proceedings being taken against him/her. And Article 46B.004(c) of the Code of Criminal Procedure provides that if any evidence comes to the attention of the trial court suggesting incompetence, the judge must determine by informal inquiry whether there is “some evidence” from any source that would suggest the defendant is incompetent to stand trial.
The judge in Hart’s case certainly had some evidence of incompetency with Hart’s 47 IQ. This was made clear by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals when it held that evidence of incompetency is usually sufficient if it shows “recent severe mental illness, at least moderate mental retardation, or truly bizarre acts by the defendant.” 2/
Aaron Hart was more than moderately retarded. He was severely retarded. There is no plausible justification for a trial court accepting a guilty plea at the punishment phase by an 18-year-old illiterate teenager with a 47 IQ. The very purpose of these state laws, which were enacted to protect mentally disabled and incompetent individuals from being abused by the legal system, were undermined by the trial judge’s acceptance of Hart’s guilty plea.
For more than three decades, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has held that a defendant’s mental impairment is a major factor to be considered in determining whether he/she is capable of understanding the relinquishment of any constitutional right. 3/ With this precedent so clearly established, it is difficult to understand, first, why Hart’s attorney elected to waive his client’s constitutional right to have his guilt decided by a jury, and, second, why the court without apparent question accepted the guilty plea at the punishment stage.
Clearly, young Hart had a possible defense of incompetency based on severe mental retardation. The State of Texas had the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the mentally challenged young man could form the necessary requisite intent to commit the crimes he was charged with. The jury had serious reservations about the case based in the limited evidence it heard during the punishment phase. Had jurors heard Hart testify in his own behalf, listened to the victim’s testimony, and weighed expert testimony on the issue of mental retardation, it is more than like they would have found him not guilty because he was unable to form the requisite intent the crimes demanded. The jurors specifically stated they wanted alternatives to imprisonment. A trial on the evidence would have given them clear alternatives—not guilty verdict, or a guilty verdict to lesser charges.
Once again the Texas criminal justice system had been held out to national and international criticism. The State already leads the nation with the most DNA exonerations, the most executions in America, one of the most abusive juvenile incarceration systems in the country, a score of recently convicted sheriffs and district attorneys sent off to prison, a host of questionable shooting deaths and beating deaths by the police, and laundry list of other corrupt practices by those charged with administering “justice” in the state.
We can only hope that either a court of appeals or the Court of Criminal Appeals will vacate Aaron Hart’s conviction and remand the case for a new trial. We also pray that the young man will not be abused in the state’s overcrowded and violent prison system while his case works its way through the appeal process.
1/ Ex parte Briseno, 135 S.W.3d 1 (Tex.Crim.App. 2004)
2/ McDaniel v. State, 98 S.W.3d 704 (Tex.Crim.App. 2003)
3/ Bizzarri v. State, 492 S.W.2d 944 (Tex.Crim.App. 1973)
By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair