RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s highest court is reviewing whether justice means the death penalty for a survivor of El Salvador’s blood-soaked civil war of the 1980s who strangled and then decapitated his estranged wife.
The state’s Supreme Court hears oral arguments Monday on whether the state can execute 41-year-old Juan Carlos Rodriguez of Winston-Salem for the 2010 murder of his wife, Maria. The high court automatically reviews death cases.
North Carolina is rare among southern states in that it hasn’t had an execution in more than a decade because of various legal challenges. While the state has continued to suffer 500 to 600 murders a year, prosecutors have sought the death penalty only a handful of times each year and juries have condemned killers in only a fraction of those cases.
Rodriguez’s children told investigators their father beat and bloodied Maria Rodriguez after she told them she was leaving in November 2010. He tossed the woman’s still-breathing body over his shoulder, placed her in his vehicle, and said he was taking her to a hospital. Maria’s body and severed head were found at different locations three weeks later, after Juan was already jailed for her kidnapping.
Justices are holding hearings in the case for the second time in almost exactly a year. Monday’s hearing comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this spring that states needed to use current medical standards in deciding whether a killer is so mentally disabled he can’t be executed. The U.S. constitution bans “cruel and unusual punishments,” and that has been interpreted to prohibit executing people with severe mental shortcomings.
Rodriguez’s IQ was estimated several times at below 70, a threshold for significantly impaired intellectual functioning. But accused killers in North Carolina also must show significant inability to adapt to daily life and that their mental handicaps were evident before adulthood.
Prosecutors introduced testimony showing Rodriguez worked as a brick mason meant he competed in the job market and earned a decent salary, was able to fill out forms, sign a lease, and pay bills. But a forensic psychiatrist testifying for Rodriguez said he compensated at work for his inability to learn addition or subtraction by marking a yardstick with common measurements.
Attorneys trying to prevent his execution argue that growing up in rural El Salvador meant Rodriguez was scarred by extreme poverty, malnutrition so severe his mother once told him to eat grass, exposure to neurotoxins in pesticides, and education that ended with seventh grade at age 16. Rodriguez also suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from the war, his attorneys said.
“In addition to the torture and murder of his brother, young Juan Carlos was regularly exposed to heavy combat, air raids, and the possibility of stepping on land mines,” defense attorney John Carella wrote in one court filing.
Prosecutors countered that while psychologists agree that traumatic experiences could contribute to intellectual disability, Rodriguez’s “experience of growing up during a particular civil war was collective and not individualized to him.” In other words, thousands of other rural Salvadorans survived the ghastly violence without turning into killers themselves.
Despite having one of the world’s highest homicide rates, El Salvador allows the death penalty only for exceptional crimes.
There are 144 killers on North Carolina’s death row, including Rodriguez and three women. He’s been one of the most recent additions to the line waiting for their execution day. The longest has been on death row for 32 years. The latest was added in April 2016.