In a 5-4 split decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty law May 27, finding that it “creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional.”
The decision represents an expansion of the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, where it ruled that capital punishment against people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court, however, left it to the states to determine who fell under this category.
The Florida statute at issue rested on a strict cut-off for death penalty eligibility. State law prohibited capital punishment against people with an IQ below 70; while people with an IQ above 70 were eligible, regardless of any other evidence of intellectual disability.
Throughout the opinion, the Court criticized Florida’s strict reliance on the 70 IQ cut-off as unsupported by medical opinion.
Specifically, the Court stated that it is widely accepted that the “test scores should be read not as a single fixed number but as a range,” meaning that they normally have a 5-point margin of error.
Even more significantly, the Court stated that intellectual disability cannot be measured solely by IQ scores, but must be coupled with an analysis of the person’s “deficits in adaptive functioning (the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances).”
“Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. “Courts must recognize, as does the medical community, that the IQ test is imprecise…. In using these scores to assess a defendant’s eligibility for the death penalty, a state must afford these test scores the same studied skepticism that those who design and use the tests do.”
The Court also characterized the statute as failing to further any “legitimate penological purpose,” such as rehabilitation, deterrence or retribution. Moreover, the Court elaborated that an expansive definition of intellectual disability furthers the state’s interest in protecting the integrity of the trial process.
“These persons face ‘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 Court stated.
Multiple states, including Kentucky and Virginia, had identical statutes to Florida’s, while at least nine states have statutes which could be interpreted as having a strict IQ cut-off, the opinion stated.
The state of Florida argued that Freddie Hall, the defendant in the case, had an IQ of 71, and thus was eligible for the death penalty.
Attorneys for Hall, who was convicted of the 1978 murder and rape of Karol Hurst, introduced nine IQ tests for him, taken over a 40-year period. These tests ranged in score from 60 to 80, though the tests with scores under 71 were not admitted for evidentiary reasons.
According to the court briefs, Hall was identified as “mentally retarded” on numerous occasions. As a child, Hall grew up in what the sentencing judge described as “the most horrifying family circumstances imaginable,” where he was brutally beaten an average 10 to 15 times per week.
Despite this testimony, a jury sentenced Hall to death in 1987. Two years after the Atkins decision, Hall filed a motion to have his death sentence overturned. Five years later he was granted a hearing.
The decision is also noteworthy for its recognition of the changing rhetoric for describing disability.
“Previous opinions of this Court have employed the term ‘mental retardation’,” the opinion said. “This opinion uses the term ‘intellectual disability’ to describe the identical phenomenon.”