John Steinbeck's Son Thinks Texas Should Stop Using Dad's Character to Decide Which Mentally Retarded Prisoners to Execute

Lennie Small was the simple-minded field worker in Of Mice and Men who, in a moment of confused panic, inadvertently kills the wife of the boss' son. He's an iconic character in American literature, so iconic that Texas used him as a benchmark to help decide when it's okay to execute intellectually disabled prisoners.

In the wake of a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that banned executions of mentally retarded prisoners, Texas developed the "Briseno factors," seven criteria used to determine if a prisoner is mentally fit enough to be executed. Those criteria were based on the court's determination that, "Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt."

The issue is resurfacing now because 54-year-old Marvin Wilson is scheduled to die of lethal injection at 6 p.m. this evening. Wilson has an IQ of 61 and reportedly can't tie his shoelaces or match socks, but he was convicted of killing a police drug informant in 1992 and was sentenced to death. Wilson's attorneys have argued that he does not have the mental competence to be executed and that doing so would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Those pleas have been ignored by the courts.

But on the eve of Wilson's execution, Thomas Steinbeck, son of the late novelist, is objecting to the use of his late father's character to determine who is fit to be put to death.

"I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous, and profoundly tragic," he said in a statement reported by the Texas Tribune. His father's work "was certainly not meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability."

Human Rights Watch and various others are objecting to Wilson's execution on the grounds that it violates Wilson's Constitutional rights. But this is Texas. Wilson will be getting the needle at 6 o'clock sharp.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson