The U.S. Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional Florida’s standard for determining whether a Death Row inmate is so intellectually disabled that he should not be executed.
The state uses a rigid measure that doesn’t account for a standard measurement of error, commonly recognized in IQ testing.
“Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” the court found in a 5-4 decision Tuesday. “To impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being.”
The court considered the Florida case of Freddie Lee Hall, who in 1978 kidnapped, beat, raped and murdered a pregnant woman.
Hall’s childhood teachers repeatedly said he was mentally disabled. A lawyer who represented him in his murder trial said he had the mental capacity of the lawyer’s 4-year-old daughter.
With an IQ registering at 71, one point above the cutoff, Hall was deemed eligible for execution by the state.
Florida is one of nine states with a strict IQ cut off of 70,according to the court. But since the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins decision in 2002 that states cannot execute the mentally incapacitated, the trend has moved away from a fixed IQ standard. States have favored allowing Death Row inmates on the borderline to present other evidence of mental incapacity.
“Every state legislature, save one, to have considered the issue after Atkins and whose law has been interpreted by its courts has taken a position contrary to Florida’s,” said the opinion written by the court’s frequent swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy. His opinion was joined by the four liberal Justices: Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.
Kennedy wrote that someone mentally incapacitated “faces a special risk of wrongful execution because they are more likely to give false confessions, are often poor witnesses, and are less able to give meaningful assistance to their counsel.”
The death penalty may lose its deterrent value, Kennedy wrote, for those with intellectual disability because “they have a diminished ability to “process information, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, or to control impulses.”
Justice Samuel Alito, wrote in a dissenting opinion that “the Court’s approach in this case marks a new and most unwise turn in our Eighth Amendment case law.” The Eighth amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Rather than exercising its independent judgment, the court, through the majority opinion, struck down Florida’s law based “on the evolving standards of professional societies, most notably the American Psychiatric Association.”
Florida’s system accounts for errors in IQ testing by considering multiple test scores, Alito noted.
Alito’s opinion received the support of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The case of Hall V. Florida is important, analysts at Scotusblog noted, because 12 years after the court left it to the states to decide when someone was too mentally incapacitate to be executed, the court had set a new standard. The court made clear that states cannot set a rigid standard of an IQ of 70, but it found that the court left unclear whether states could set a fixed score at, say, 75, according to Scotusblog, an award-winning blog chronicling the work of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court returned Hall’s case to the lower courts to determine whether he is eligible for the death penalty.