Supreme Court takes up death penalty eligibility case

Photo of a gas chamber
Death penalty eligibility

The U.S. Supreme Court announced October 21 that it would hear arguments in a case that could provide clarity to a 2002 landmark ruling which barred the use of the death penalty for people with severe mental disabilities.

In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment barred federal and state governments from executing “the mentally retarded.” However, the Court left it to the states to determine which individuals fall into this category.

In light of the decision, it became generally accepted that people with an IQ below 70 would be ineligible for capital punishment. Legislatures in 11 states, including Florida, passed laws establishing the 70 IQ threshold in their death penalty statutes.

In May, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the state’s decision to go forward with the execution of Freddie Hall, whose IQ has been measured as low as 71. Hall’s planned execution was stayed while the case was appealed.

“The Supreme Court is right to revisit its 2002 ruling, which gave states too much leeway to define intellectual disability,” the New York Times wrote in an editorial October 22. “It should take this opportunity to reaffirm the central principle of Atkins and require states to adhere to medical consensus in defining intellectual disability.”

Hall is being held for the 1978 murder and sexual assault of Karol Hurst. He has been on death row since 1982.

When Florida passed legislation regarding the 70 IQ threshold in 2004, Hall filed a lawsuit against the measure on the grounds that it did not provide enough protection to people in his position. In 1991, a trial court had made an explicit finding that Hall was “mentally retarded” and Hall’s IQ had fluctuated between 71 and 80 during his time in prison.

A divided Florida Supreme Court upheld the statute in May, on the grounds that it was bound by Atkins, which left such eligibility determinations up to the states.

“Because we find that there is competent, substantial evidence to support the court’s finding that Hall is not mentally retarded, we affirm,” the majority stated.

The decision included two dissenting opinions, from judges who argued that the decision undermined the intent of the Atkins decision.

“The situation present in Florida, in which the Legislature has established a bright-line cutoff score that this Court has upheld, now creates a significant risk that a defendant who has once been found to be mentally retarded may still be executed,” Justice Labarga wrote. “I believe this result is not in accord with the rationale underlying the constitutional bar to execution of the mentally retarded, which the United States Supreme Court set forth in Atkins.”

Argument will be held this winter and a decision will likely be released near the end of the court’s term.