Professor Jim Ellis Leads Team in Tennessee Victory

June 9, 2011


The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled last spring that expert testimony, and not just raw IQ scores, may be considered when determining intellectual disability of a person facing the death penalty. This ruling was a victory for Professor Jim Ellis, who presented an amicus curiae argument that supported defendant Michael Angelo Coleman’s contention that he is mentally disabled. Under Tennessee law, people with proven mental disability cannot be executed.

"Professor Ellis is a national treasure. He has been a resource for litigants and attorneys across the country and a quiet hero, really, to countless mentally disabled people, most of whom will never know his name or understand the impact that he has made in their lives. His work has shaped the contours of the legal landscape nationwide for people with mental disabilities and ultimately has made the United States a much more humane country."
–Dean Kevin Washburn

In his latest effort to keep mentally disabled inmates off death row, Ellis led his 20th team of UNM law students and staff in a unique learning opportunity. The brief was filed on behalf of the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the Arc of the United States and the Arc of Tennessee.

The UNM School of Law’s effort began in September 2010, with Ellis’ co-counsel, Professor April Land, assembling the team. Members were: UNM Law Librarian Theresa Strike, Ann Delpha (`10), staff attorney for the New Mexico Innocence and Justice Project; Megan Dorsey (`11), Sarah Grisham (`11), Evie Jilek (`12), Kate Loewe (`11), Jasmine McGee (`11) and Melanie Stambaugh (`11).

A statutory interpretation
The case was a statutory interpretation of the Tennessee law that defines intellectual disability as a functional intelligence quotient of 70 or below and deficits in adaptive behavior. Ellis remembered when the 1990 law was passed because he was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and lobbied on behalf of the statute.

In Coleman’s case, the criteria used to determine his intellectual competence was at question. He was convicted of a 1979 murder of a man during the robbery of a Memphis grocery store. In his appeal, he argued that lower-court rulings concluding he did not meet the statutory definition of intellectually disabled were incorrect.

Throughout the month of September, the team spent long hours on various aspects of research for the brief. Their mission was to help the court understand what the Legislature meant when it added language about IQ scores to the law. Delpha took a close look at the legislative history of the statute, poring over transcripts of every legislative session in which the law was discussed. Ellis is certain Delpha is now the foremost expert in the world on the statute

The Tennessee law was passed before the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Atkins case, which determined that executing people with mental disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment. That historic decision also showcased Ellis and a UNM law school team. Stambaugh compiled the team’s research into a comprehensive survey of state statutes that prohibit the execution of people with intellectual disability and of states that have not enacted such legislation. Grisham edited and cite checked the entire brief.

“My background is in publishing, and it was an honor to be able to contribute the skills I learned in that field to this singularly worthy effort,” said Grisham. She lost count of the hours she spent on the case, but that didn’t matter.

“Working on the brief took me out of the four walls of the law school and into the real world. It reinforced the idea that every word counts, and that every move directly affects other lives,” she said. “I would never trade the experience.”

The highest level of professionalism
As he has done with every team, Ellis involved the students in every aspect of the process, and before he filed the brief in October, everyone sat down in a marathon session and went through the entire brief, line by line. Ellis argued the case in Jackson, Tenn.

On April 11, the court ruled in favor of Coleman. As a result, two months later, the State of Tennessee agreed to a life sentence, dating back to his 1980s conviction, which means Coleman could be eligible for parole before the end of 2011.

Such a profound outcome was good news for the students whose participation was totally voluntary, and they received no credit for the long hours they spent on the case.

“This required an immense amount of work in a short period of time while they were going to law school,” said Ellis. “My hope is that they gained for themselves that it was worth the effort. For the disability organizations and people with mental retardation, the students perform a wonderful service at the highest level of professionalism.”