Life or Death Decision for Griffin Jury Rests on Mental State, Childhood

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As he made his opening statement Friday in the punishment phase of the Stanley Griffin capital murder trial, defense attorney Stephen Gustitis asked the jury to focus on three points.

While Gustitis said his side will show that prison can serve to better someone, his first and second points -- mental retardation and a rough childhood -- could mean the difference between a sentence of death or life in prison without parole.

Griffin was found guilty Wednesday in the September 2010 murder of Jennifer Hailey in her College Station home. Her nine-year-old son walked in on his mother's strangulation, then was attacked with a garden trowel by Griffin. The boy survived.

According to Gustitis, one of Griffin's most recent IQ tests had a score of 73. Come Monday, the defense is scheduled to bring educators from Florida where Griffin when to school, who will reportedly testify to Griffin scoring in the 60s before the age of 18.

An IQ less than 70 is just one aspect of mental retardation, according to the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Another is at least two deficiencies in adaptive behavior, the skills a person needs to function day-to-day. The areas are "communication, self-care, home living, social/interpersonal skills, use of community resources, self-direction, functional academic skills, work, leisure, health, and safety." The onset of these issues must be seen prior to the age of 18.

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that mentally retarded people cannot be executed because it is considered cruel and unusual punishment outlawed by the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

Prosecutors vowed in their opening statement to provide their own experts to counter defense experts who say Griffin is mentally retarded. In addition to the Florida educators, the defense has said they will bring mental health professionals to discuss Griffin.

Like any capital murder jury, the ten women and two men charged with deciding Griffin's fate will be asked two questions. The first is whether the 47-year-old poses a future danger to others.

The state used much of its portion of the punishment phase showing violent tendencies of Griffin. He was sent to prison for a 1990 attack on a Webster, Texas woman in her home. Ex-girlfriends, children, a former cellmate and correctional officers were among those who testified about Griffin's violence. He allegedly choked one girlfriend's son and put another girlfriend's daughter's hands up to fire and hot ovens as punishment. He verbally abused jail guards, and even reportedly bullied another capital murder suspect out of his lunch in jail.

If he is deemed a future danger, the Griffin jury then goes to a second question: are there mitigating circumstances that should prevent the State of Texas from executing him? Mental retardation automatically disqualifies Griffin, but the jury could spare his life if his character or background provides a reason.

The second pillar of Griffin's defense will be a tough upbringing, one eluded to in Gustitis' punishment opening, including references to a bad relationship between Griffin and his mother.

It was during that portion of Gustitis' statement Friday that Griffin was seen crying, his head resting on his hands. It was a sharp departure from the defendant's demeanor throughout the trial. He has seemed relaxed for much of the proceedings, even smiling at some testimony, other times shaking his head and mumbling when he seemingly disagreed with people on the stand. Observers of the jury say the panel has been watching Griffin, and has not looked pleased by his body language.

If Griffin is not deemed a future danger, or the jury decides there are mitigating circumstances, he will automatically receive life in prison without parole. A death penalty decision must be unanimous.