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Florida’s IQ Rule for Death Penalty Exemption Unconstitutional

Florida’s IQ Rule for Death Penalty Exemption Unconstitutional

by David Reutter

Florida’s “rigid rule” that requires defendants to have an IQ of 70 or less before they can present mitigating evidence of an intellectual disability “creates an unacceptable risk that persons with an intellectual disability will be executed,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in a 5-4 Supreme Court opinion issued last year, which found Florida’s strict IQ rule unconstitutional.

The Court’s decision involved the case of Freddie Lee Hall, who was convicted in the 1978 rape and murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 and seven months pregnant, and murder of sheriff’s deputy Lonnie Coburn. The evidence at sentencing indicated Hall “has been mentally retarded his entire life” and was raised “under the most horrible family circumstances imaginable” by an abusive mother.

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), Hall filed a motion claiming he was intellectually disabled – a term now used for mental retardation – and thus could not be executed. More than five years later, a hearing was held. Florida argued that state law requires defendants to have an IQ of 70 or lower before evidence of an intellectual disability can be presented. Hall’s lowest IQ score accepted by the trial court was 71. In rejecting Hall’s appeal, the state Supreme Court held the IQ rule was constitutional.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. wrote that past Eighth Amendment cases considered by the U.S. Supreme Court were based on evolving standards of decency, but in this case “The court strikes down a state law based on the evolving standards of professional societies, most notably the American Psychiatric Association.”

Justice Kennedy, however, noted that the IQ rule comes from the medical community, and “Florida’s rule disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways. It takes an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant’s intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence. It also relies on a purportedly scientific measurement of the defendant’s abilities, his IQ score, while refusing to recognize that the score is, on its own terms, imprecise.”

Such scores “Should be read not as a single fixed number but as a range.” Professionals use, and must follow, the IQ test’s “standard error of measurement.” Once that is applied, an IQ score of 75 or below requires consideration of “factors indicating whether the person had deficits in adaptive functioning,” which “include evidence of past performance, environment, and upbringing.”

Justice Kennedy noted that “No legitimate penological purpose is served by executing a person with an intellectual disability.... To do so contravenes the Eighth Amendment, for to impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being.” He added that intellectually disabled defendants “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 majority opinion concluded that “The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose. Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world.”

Accordingly, the Florida Supreme Court’s judgment was reversed and the case remanded. Regardless, Hall remains housed on Florida’s death row. See: Hall v. Florida, 134 S.Ct. 1986 (2014).

Related legal case

Hall v. Florida