Supreme Court: IQ score alone can't decide who faces execution in Florida

The US Supreme Court rules that Florida's IQ cutoff is too rigid and creates an unacceptable risk that an intellectually disabled inmate would be executed. The ruling sets a new death-row standard for Florida and eight other states.

Florida Department of Corrections handout/AP
This undated photo made available by the Florida Department of Corrections shows inmate Freddie Lee Hall. The US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states must look beyond an intelligence test score in borderline cases of mental disability to determine whether a death-row inmate is eligible to be executed.

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Florida’s method for determining whether a death-row inmate has an intellectual disability significant enough to bar imposition of the death penalty.

The justices said Florida’s approach violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment by creating an unacceptable risk that an intellectually disabled inmate would be executed.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court effectively set a national standard that will require Florida and eight other states to revise their procedures for deciding whether capital punishment may be imposed on a convicted criminal with a low IQ.

The Florida Supreme Court had established a bright-line rule that those scoring 70 or below on an IQ test were not eligible for capital punishment. The key question in the Florida case was whether a death row inmate with an IQ score of 71 could be executed.

In declaring the Florida rule unconstitutional, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the state’s bright-line approach was in direct opposition to the views of mental health experts who favor a more elastic reading of IQ test results. He said Florida’s criterion was too rigid and did not account for a possible margin of error.

“Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” Justice Kennedy said.

In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the majority justices had shifted the court’s capital punishment jurisprudence by placing heavy reliance on consensus among medical experts.

Justice Alito said the high court’s prior capital punishment decisions had been based on an assessment of the evolving standards of American society as a whole – including judgments made by state lawmakers.

“Now, however, the Court strikes down a state law based on the evolving standards of professional societies, most notably the American Psychiatric Association,” Alito said.

Tuesday’s decision invalidates the capital sentence of Florida death-row inmate Freddie Lee Hall, whose lawyers argued that their client was too mentally disabled to face execution.

“Freddie Lee Hall may or may not be intellectually disabled, but the law requires that he have the opportunity to present evidence of his intellectual disability, including deficits in adaptive functioning over his lifetime,” Kennedy said in a 22-page opinion.

Under the Florida approach, any assessment of Mr. Hall’s intellectual disability stopped if he tested above a 70 IQ.

The court’s decision now requires that states take into account the margin of error in any IQ calculation and provide an inmate an opportunity to demonstrate to a judge a second factor – the subject’s ability to adapt to the requirements of daily life.

That second inquiry involves an examination of the inmate’s adaptive abilities from an early age. It must include assessments of the individual’s environment and upbringing.

“The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose,” Kennedy wrote. “Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution.”

The decision is a refinement of a 2002 landmark decision in which the Supreme Court declared that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment barred the imposition of lethal punishment for anyone identified as “mentally retarded.”

But the majority justices in that decision left it to each state individually to decide how best to determine whether a particular condemned inmate was ineligible for a death sentence because of intellectual disability.

Relying on that 2002 decision, the Florida Supreme Court endorsed a bright-line cutoff that allowed the execution of any inmate with a tested IQ higher than 70.

“Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of 70 on an IQ test,” Kennedy wrote. “Florida is just one of a few states that have this rigid rule.”

Kennedy said the Florida approach is in “direct opposition to the views of those who design, administer, and interpret the IQ test.”

The justice added: “By failing to take into account the standard error of measurement, Florida’s law not only contradicts the test’s own design but also bars an essential part of a sentencing court’s inquiry into adaptive functioning.”

In his dissent, Justice Alito said he would defer to the judgment of the states on how best to assess whether a condemned inmate was mentally disabled.

“The resolution of this case should be straightforward: Just as there was no methodological consensus among the States at the time of the [2002 landmark decision], there is no such consensus today,” Alito said. “And in the absence of such a consensus, we have no basis for holding that Florida’s method contravenes our society’s standards of decency.” 

Alito’s dissent was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Kennedy’s majority opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

The decision stems from a legal challenge to Florida’s death penalty system mounted by lawyers representing Mr. Hall.

Hall has been on death row since he was convicted for his role in the 1978 kidnap, sexual assault, and murder of a 21-year-old housewife, Karol Hurst. Mrs. Hurst was abducted while loading groceries into her car in a food store parking lot in Leesburg, Fla.

Hall and another man targeted her because they wanted to use her car to rob a convenience store. Rather than simply stealing the car, Hall forced Hurst into the car and drove her to a wooded area. The other man followed in his car.

Hurst, who was seven months pregnant, was sexually assaulted and shot dead.

Later that day, the two men drove Hurst’s car – with groceries still in the back seat – to a convenience store. The store manager became suspicious and called police. A sheriff’s deputy arrived and was shot dead after confronting Hall and the other man outside the store.

There is no claim of innocence. The only issue was whether Hall’s execution was barred under the Eighth Amendment because Florida did not follow a particular procedure to determine whether Hall is intellectually disabled.

From 1968 to 2008, Hall took nine different IQ tests. The results range from a high score of 80 in 1986 to a low score of 60 in 1988, according to court documents. The average score from all nine tests is 72.66.

In the most recent test in 2008, Hall showed an IQ of 72. 

The case was Hall v. Florida (12-10882).

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