Defending Clients with Intellectual Disabilities in Missouri Criminal Cases


Missouri DWI & Criminal Law Center has been successfully defending clients with intellectual disabilities in Missouri criminal cases. If you have a case like this, call us today.

Intellectual Disability in Missouri Criminal Cases


In Missouri’s criminal cases, it is really important to defend people with intellectual disabilities fairly.

Persons with intellectual disabilities generally have limitations in cognitive function, such as problems with language, social skills, and self-care abilities. Intellectual disabilities can be mild, moderate, or severe, and they often accompany other disabilities.

These individuals may need extra assistance understanding things and dealing with challenges. When defending them in court, it’s important to ensure that they are treated fairly and respectfully.

Individuals with intellectual disabilities sometimes don’t understand the consequences of their actions. Many misunderstand police officers’ questions. That can increase their vulnerability to arrest and incarceration. That is the case even if they didn’t commit the crime. 

Upon entering the criminal justice system, they are more likely to be convicted. At the same time, they are less likely to receive probation or parole.

Individuals with intellectual disabilities may act in the following ways:

  • Try to hide their intellectual disability

  • May not understand their rights

  • May say what they think law enforcement officers want to hear

  • May be confused about who actually committed the crime

  • Plead guilty even though they may be innocent

As a result, people with intellectual disabilities may experience injustices in the legal system. That’s why it’s essential to retain an experienced attorney in criminal defense in Missouri who can balance being fair with making sure those with disabilities are treated kindly.

How Is Intellectual Disability Defined?


There are two closely related clinical definitions for mental or intellectual disability, as established by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (formerly AAMR) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA). These definitions include the following criteria:

  • Considerably impaired intellectual functioning

  • Considerably impaired adaptive behavior

  • Onset before the age of 18

Most states, including Missouri, have accepted this definition in their legal codes. Accordingly, those meeting these established criteria often qualify for assistance and resources through the Department of Mental Health (DMH) in Missouri.

In assessing impaired intellectual functioning, IQ (Intelligence Quotient) tests are frequently employed, with a common benchmark for individuals with intellectual disabilities being an IQ of 70 or lower. However, it’s important to note that relying solely on numerical values isn’t always sufficient to accurately ascertain the presence of intellectual disabilities.

In legal contexts, the ramifications of relying solely on numerical values can be profound. If an individual is deemed ineligible for certain legal protections or accommodations based solely on their IQ score, there’s a risk of overlooking their unique cognitive and adaptive challenges. This could result in a failure to provide the necessary support for them to effectively participate in their defense, potentially compromising the fairness of the legal proceedings.

Intellectual Disability and Missouri Criminal Law


Article I, Section 18 of the Missouri Constitution establishes a comprehensive bill of rights safeguarding individuals facing criminal prosecutions. This section says that people accused of crimes have the right to defend themselves in court, the right to know what they’re being accused of, and the right to a quick trial with a jury from the same area where the alleged crime happened.

When it comes to protecting the rights of people with intellectual disabilities, Code 552.020 of Missouri criminal law discusses the lack of mental capacity for a trial or conviction. This law acknowledges that individuals who lack the mental capacity to understand legal proceedings are protected. Specifically, individuals fitting this description cannot be tried, convicted, or sentenced for an offense, as long as their incapacity persists.

For example, if a judge has reasonable cause to suspect the mental unfitness of the accused to stand trial, the judge is obligated to appoint one or more private professionals with expertise in intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, or mental illness.

These appointed professionals must possess a minimum of one year of relevant training or experience, and they must not be affiliated with the Department of Mental Health.

The appointed professionals have to examine the accused. A written report of the examination must be filed with the court. Among other findings, the report has to include their opinion on whether the accused:

  1. Has an intellectual disability
  2. Lacks the capacity to understand the proceedings
  3. Will be mentally fit to proceed “in the reasonably foreseeable future”

If the accused is not fit, the criminal proceedings may be suspended. The accused can then be committed to treatment.

Case Law and Intellectual Disability in Criminal Proceedings


A notable case addressing the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities is Atkins v. Virginia. This case holds significance as it reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities was in violation of the Eighth Amendment. This pivotal decision underscored the importance of recognizing the unique vulnerabilities of individuals with intellectual disabilities within the criminal justice system.

However, it’s important to note that being deemed to have an intellectual disability doesn’t automatically absolve someone of criminal responsibility or legal consequences for their actions. The complexities surrounding the determination of intellectual disability require careful consideration on a case-by-case basis.

One instance that highlights the intricacies of this legal landscape is the case of Johnson v. State of Missouri. The Missouri Supreme Court’s approach in this case exemplifies the process of evaluating post-conviction relief for defendants with intellectual disabilities. This case demonstrated that defendants and their attorneys are required to provide specific evidence to substantiate the presence of an intellectual disability.

This illustrates the necessity of demonstrating intellectual disability within the framework of each individual case, emphasizing the intricate interplay between legal standards, medical expertise, and the pursuit of justice for those with intellectual disabilities.

Defense Counsel for a Criminal Defendant With Intellectual Disabilities


While Missouri has established robust laws aimed at safeguarding the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities, the process of defending such individuals can be uniquely complex. Cases involving intellectual disabilities differ significantly from those without, demanding extensive experience and a comprehensive understanding of both the law and the specific challenges faced by those with disabilities.

Having a seasoned attorney by your side becomes paramount in such situations. Our experienced attorneys can level the playing field, offering individuals with intellectual disabilities a fair chance in legal proceedings.

At the Missouri DWI & Criminal Law Center, we stand apart from other law firms due to our founder’s faculty position and our attorneys’ rigorous training at the esteemed Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College – a premier program for trial lawyer education in the USA. Our team’s training equips us to offer unparalleled support to clients facing complex legal challenges.

Please contact us for assistance if you or a loved one have intellectual disabilities and are involved with the criminal justice system. We offer legal advice and representation to ensure that clients with intellectual disabilities receive the fair and just treatment they deserve. Contact us today for a free consultation and to learn more about how we can help you.

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