Death penalty dispute could go to state Supreme Court

Lincoln County prosecutors want clarity on legal definition of intellectual disability

By: - May 18, 2023 1:18 pm
Amir Beaudion Jr. appears in court on Jan. 28, 2020, at the Lincoln County Courthouse in Canton. Beaudion is charged with first degree murder in the death of Pasqalina Esen Badi. (Photo by Abigail Dollins, reused with permission from the Argus Leader)

Amir Beaudion Jr. appears in court on Jan. 28, 2020, at the Lincoln County Courthouse in Canton. Beaudion is charged with first degree murder in the death of Pasqalina Esen Badi. (Photo by Abigail Dollins, reused with permission from the Argus Leader)

Prosecutors in Lincoln County want the state Supreme Court to decide if it’s constitutional to seek the death penalty for a man defense attorneys say is intellectually disabled.

Second Circuit Presiding Judge Robin Houwman ruled in late April that the state’s standards for intellectual disability do not comport closely enough with medical standards to pass constitutional muster. 

The decision may take the death penalty off the table for Amir Beaudion Jr., who’s accused of kidnapping, raping and killing Pasqalina Badi in January of 2020. A hearing is set for late July, at which Beaudion’s lawyers intend to argue that their client is intellectually disabled. 

Earlier this month, Judge Houwman denied a motion to reconsider her April ruling. This week, Lincoln County State’s Attorney Tom Wollman filed a petition to put her ruling under review by the state’s high court. 

The issue hinges on a handful of details in South Dakota law that defense lawyers say bar people like Beaudion Jr. from claiming immunity from capital punishment due to intellectual disability. Those with such a disability have been exempt from a death sentence since 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such a sentence would violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Beaudion Jr.’s lawyers say the state’s standards are too restrictive. The law not only requires a person to have an I.Q. score below 70, but also that the I.Q. score and its relation to a person’s “subaverage” adaptive skills be documented before a defendant reaches 18 years old. 

Beaudion Jr. was 19 at the time of the homicide, and has no such documentation. He does, however, have an I.Q. score of 60, according to court documents.

Houwman’s April ruling sided with defense attorneys, who referenced case law showing that courts are typically bound by guidance of the medical community in determinations of intellectual disability.

In 2021 and 2022, after Beaudion Jr.’s alleged crime, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) updated its guidance on intellectual disability in a manner the defense said qualifies their client for immunity from execution. The DSM no longer ties together I.Q. and adaptive function as a requirement for a diagnosis of intellectual disability.

Defense lawyers had also tried to bar the death penalty for their client because of his young age at the time of the crime, but Judge Houwman rejected those arguments.

In this week’s appeal on the question of intellectual disability, Wollman wrote that Beaudion Jr. cannot legally challenge state laws on the death penalty, as he has yet to be convicted of a crime for which the death penalty is a possibility.


Houwman ruled that the individual laws in question aren’t unconstitutional on their face, but become so when taken together to create a legal definition of intellectual disability. They are “inseparably connected,” Houwman wrote. 

Wollman’s petition makes the case that courts need to meet a higher standard before upending laws passed by the legislative branch. 

It’s also relevant, Wollman wrote, that the state’s high court has yet to clearly define the bounds of an intellectual disability claim in South Dakota death penalty cases.

“As it stands today,” the petition says, “There is currently no standard or statutory allowance for a defendant to claim an intellectual disability as a bar to the death penalty.”

Going forward with a hearing on Beaudion Jr.’s intellectual disability this July without such a standard in place, the petition says, would make Houwman “step into the shoes of the legislature to determine proper procedure, determine which party bears the burden, what that burden is, and ultimately what the standard is to define intellectual disability.”

The South Dakota Supreme Court has yet to decide whether to hear Wollman’s appeal.


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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.