Supreme Court Dismisses Florida Test for Intellectual Disability Claims in Death Penalty Cases

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: May 28, 2014

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A divided Supreme Court struck down a Florida law setting a strict threshold for intellectual disability claims used by capital defendants to avoid the death penalty.  According to Florida law, a convicted defendant seeking to avoid the death penalty by claiming intellectual disability – the newly accepted term for mental retardation – must have an IQ score of 70 or lower.  Florida’s law strictly qualified intellectual disability based on this number, and, via a 5-4 split decision, the Supreme Court determined that the state’s rigid standard was unconstitutional.

Intellectual Disability Claims in Death Penalty Cases

In its 2002 Atkins v Virginia decision, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution – which together establish that no state can enact cruel and unusual punishment upon criminal defendants – forbid the execution of persons with intellectual disabilities.  In Atkins, the Court reasoned that individuals with mental disabilities do not act with sufficient level of moral culpability to warrant state sponsored execution, and that capital proceedings against the intellectually disabled may lack integrity and fairness due to the defendant’s inability to understand the charges and provide meaningful assistance to counsel during trial. 

By way of the Atkins decision, SCOTUS established the standard that each state must adhere to when confronted with capital crimes committed by defendants of questionable intellectual capabilities.  Although Atkins did not establish a simple test for states to implement, the principals of the decision mandate that state law must be consistent with the medical community’s assessment of intellectual disability.  In this week’s Hall v Florida decision, the Supreme Court found that Florida had created too limited a test for intellectual disability, and had therefore violated the constitution by failing to satisfy the principals set forth in Atkins.

Hall v Florida Finds State Test for Intellectual Disability Unconstitutional

At issue in Hall was whether or not Florida’s threshold IQ score of 70 was constitutional in light of the Atkins prohibition on executing intellectually disabled defendants.  In February of 1978, Freddie Lee Hall and an accomplice drove to a convenience store raped and murdered a 21-year old woman and killed the sheriff’s deputy who attempted to arrest the pair.  Hall was convicted of his crime, and sentenced to death before the Atkins decision determined that the Eighth Amendment forbid the execution of individuals with an intellectual disability.  In 2004, after Atkins, Hall filed an appeal of his sentence claiming intellectual disability.  Over the course of his incarceration, Hall had taken a number of IQ tests, scoring between 71 and 80 – too high to meet Florida’s threshold score of 70.  Under the Florida Supreme Court’s strict interpretation of the state’s intellectual disability law, Hall was ineligible for relief, and his death sentence was upheld.

Justice Kennedy, joined by the four liberal judges on the Supreme Court, wrote a majority opinion that will force Florida to reconsider Hall’s petition because the state’s reliance on a threshold requirement is too rigid.  Kennedy found that Florida’s reliance on a firm IQ score violated the Atkins principals in two ways: it takes the IQ score as final and conclusive evidence, and it relies on a scientific measurement while refusing to recognize that IQ score tests can be imprecise.  In his opinion, Justice Kennedy leaned heavily on the current practices employed by members of the medical community, which cast doubt on the strict adherence to IQ score in determining intellectual disability used by Florida in rejecting Hall’s petition.

The medical community, which the Atkins decision pointed to as the guiding beacon for intellectual disability determinations, does not rely on IQ score alone when diagnosing mentally challenged patients.  Professionals who work with the intellectually disabled use IQ tests in conjunction with analysis of how the subjects interact with others, how the subject interacts with his social environment, and how well the defendant can learn and adapt behavior appropriate to their surroundings.  With more than just the IQ test used as probative to the determination of intellectual disability, Florida’s strict threshold could not properly diagnose defendants making the claim.  Further, IQ tests have an error range that many other states acknowledge when making decisions on intellectual disability – leaving Florida’s reliance on a score of 70 not consistent with the medical community or other state’s tests.  Justice Kennedy found that Florida’s law violated the Eighth Amendment for failing to satisfy the principals of Atkins which require a more wholistic and medically accepted test for intellectual disability.

Death Penalty Defendant’s Intellectual Disability Claims after Hall

Although the Hall case gave insight to other states, Justice Kennedy’s opinion does not establish a rule or procedure for other states to follow.  It is clear after Hall that states must reach out to the currently accepted practice of diagnosing mental disability employed by the medical community, which now disfavors strict reliance on IQ scores.  The Court’s majority opinion is not without criticism, however, and Justice Alito pointed out in a strong dissent that the standards of the medical community may change or may not be universally agreed upon by all physicians, and asking state courts and legislatures to follow Justice Kennedy’s guidance creates uncertainty and instability in the law. 

How states are to proceed in light of the controversial and disputed Hall decision is unclear, but after the Supreme Court’s latest ruling on intellectual disability in death penalty trials, state courts will need to be mindful of the variety of tools used by members of the medical community who routinely diagnose mentally challenged individuals. 

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