The oddest thing about Tuesday night's execution of a convicted Texas murderer with an IQ below the generally accepted competency level was the role the work of John Steinbeck played in the debate around it. Lawyers for the 54-year-old Marvin Wilson, who was convicted of killing a police informant while he was out on bail from a cocaine arrest in 1992, had appealed for a stay of execution on the grounds that Wilson's IQ had been measured at 61, below the generally accepted minimum competency level of 70. On Tuesday night, their request was denied, and Wilson was administered lethal injection. He was declared dead at 6:27 p.m., local time.
Did Texas just execute a man with the mind of Lennie from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men? That's part of the standard Texas's own judiciary uses to determine whether someone is competent to face execution. And John Steinbeck's son Thomas Steinbeck hates it. "Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt," The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote in 2004. "But, does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?"
As the hours ticked by on Tuesday, as Wilson's defense scrambled to get a stay of execution and advocates such as the ACLU of Texas railed against the decision in his case, Thomas Steinbeck put out a statement expressing his and his family's disgust that the state would use his father's work as a benchmark for capital punishment. Law blogger Charles Smith published it in full:
On behalf of the family of John Steinbeck, I am deeply troubled by today's scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson, a Texas man with an I.Q. of 61. Prior to reading about Mr. Wilson's case, I had no idea that the great state of Texas would use a fictional character that my father created to make a point about human loyalty and dedication, i.e, Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men, as a benchmark to identify whether defendants with intellectual disability should live or die. My father was a highly gifted writer who won the Nobel prize for his ability to create art about the depth of the human experience and condition. His 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. I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous, and profoundly tragic. I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way.
So, Texas, if you want to administer capital punishment, the U.S. Supreme Court says it's up to you to decide whether the criminal is competent to face it (it's unconstitutional to execute someone considered mentally retarded). But the Steinbeck family would greatly appreciate it if you would keep their patriarch's work out of it.