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Supreme Court Rules Florida Death Penalty IQ Limit Unconstitutional

supreme court detail by mark fischer

The US Supreme Court has struck down a Florida law that sets a strict low-end cutoff for capital punishment based on defendants’ IQ test scores.

In yet another 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that Florida’s law, which prohibits anyone with an IQ test score above 70 from being classified as mentally disabled, is unconstitutional and violates standard medical practices.

The case involved Florida death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall, who was convicted of murdering a pregnant woman and a police officer in 1978. Hall has an IQ of 71. His legal team successfully argued that IQ tests have a standard risk of error. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that IQ tests reveal only a range, not an absolute figure, and that an individual’s IQ may be as many as five points higher or lower than their test score.

That means Hall’s true IQ could range anywhere from 66 to 76. The Court ruled that due to this range, Hall must be permitted to present evidence of his mental disability.

“Florida’s rule disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways,” wrote Kennedy. “It takes an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant’s intellectual capacity, when experts would consider other evidence; and it relies on a purportedly scientific measurement of a defendant’s abilities, while refusing to recognize the measurement’s inherent imprecision.”

“The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose,” Kennedy concluded. “Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida’s law contravenes our nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world. The states are laboratories for experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitution protects.”

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing mentally disabled individuals violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

A trial judge found Hall to be mentally handicapped and in 1999 the state supreme court ruled that “there is no doubt that the defendant has serious mental difficulties, is probably somewhat retarded, and certainly has learning difficulties and a speech impediment.”

Hall’s lawyers note that he is functionally illiterate and suffers from brain damage, psychosis and the short-term memory of a first-grader.

Eric Pinkard, Hall’s attorney, released a statement saying the Supreme Court “has recognized that ‘intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,’ and that consequently Florida cannot ignore the standard error of measurement inherent in all IQ tests.”

The Court’s ruling means Florida courts must now re-examine Hall’s intelligence and mental capacity, taking into account additional evidence, such as school records.

The American Psychological Association hailed the ruling.

“We are pleased that the majority of the Court agreed that Florida’s use of a fixed IQ score cutoff to determine a defendant’s intellectual functioning is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how to interpret IQ tests,” said APA general counsel Nathalie Gilfoyle in a statement.

Justice Kennedy was joined by the Court’s progressive bloc, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Dissenting were the conservative Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, who penned the dissenting opinion.

“The Court held [in Atkins v. Virginia] that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a death sentence for defendants who are intellectually disabled but does not mandate the use of a single method for identifying such defendants,” wrote Alito. “Today, the Court overrules the latter holding based largely on the positions adopted by private professional associations. In taking this step, the Court sharply departs from the framework prescribed in prior Eighth Amendment cases and adopts a uniform national rule that is both conceptually unsound and likely to result in confusion.”

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