Supreme Court hears death penalty eligibility case

Photo of seated statue in front of US Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments March 2 in a case that challenges whether a Florida law undermines a 2002 Supreme Court decision prohibiting states from using the death penalty against people with severe intellectual disabilities.

In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the use of capital punishment against the “mentally retarded” constituted cruel and unusual punishment, but deferred to the states to create procedures for determining who falls into that category.

In Florida, these death penalty eligibility questions rest entirely on an IQ threshold. People with an IQ above 70 are eligible. People with an IQ below 70 are not.

As disability advocates see it, this definition is overly simplistic because IQ changes over time and does not analyze the individual’s real world abilities.

“Obviously, the Court did not demand (nor did it expect) perfect uniformity of procedures among the States,” a group of disability rights groups wrote in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court. “But the commitment in Atkins of the responsibility for devising procedures most certainly was not an invitation for any State to substantially reduce the number of individuals entitled to constitutional protection by means of arbitrarily barring a fair adjudication of whether or not they have mental retardation.”

The Supreme Court appeared divided at oral arguments. As the likely swing justice, Anthony Kennedy, who joined the 6-3 majority in the Atkins decision, appeared skeptical of Florida’s law.

“Your rule prevents us from getting a better understanding of whether the IQ score is accurate or not,” Kennedy told Florida Solicitor General Allen Winsor, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The person at the center of the case, Freddie Hall, was convicted of the 1978 murder and sexual assault of Karol Hurst. His IQ has been measured as low as 71, which is within the 5-point margin of error normally used in making IQ tests.

“There are no easy short-cuts available to courts in making this decision—a decision with a defendant’s life in the balance,” the amicus brief stated. “Both for clinicians and for courts, this involves weighing all the relevant evidence…A fixed point cutoff score for ID is not psychometrically justifiable.”

The brief was signed by the National Disability Rights Network, American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, ARC of the United States, Disability Rights Florida and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of disAbility Rights Galaxy, is the protection and advocacy system in Washington state and a member of the National Disability Rights Network, NDRN.