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Florida's IQ Limit For Death Penalty Isn't Constitutional, Supreme Court Says

Florida death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall challenged the state's use of an IQ cutoff to determine mental disability. The Supreme Court sided with him on Tuesday, saying Florida's law doesn't take standard errors of measurement into account.
Florida Department of Corrections/AP
Florida death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall challenged the state's use of an IQ cutoff to determine mental disability. The Supreme Court sided with him on Tuesday, saying Florida's law doesn't take standard errors of measurement into account.

A Florida law that sets an IQ test score of 70 as a minimum in determining who's eligible for the death penalty is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court says. In a reversal of a state court's decision, the justices say Florida's rule ignores norms in the psychiatric profession. The opinion also cites the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.

"Florida set a hard-line rule that the death penalty could not be imposed on convicted felons whose IQ is 70 or below," NPR's Washington desk says in its summary of the case.

The plaintiff, Florida death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall, was found to have an IQ score of 71. Arguing before the court in March, his attorney noted that all such tests have a standard risk of error.

The case centered on the question of whether absolute rules such as the one in Florida give enough protection that was established by an earlier case, Atkins v. Virginia. In that case, the justices said it was unconstitutional to execute people who are mentally disabled, but they left open the question of how to determine that condition.

Here's what NPR's Nina Totenberg reported about the case in March:

"The case before the court involves the brutal murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 years old and seven months pregnant when she was kidnapped, raped and killed by Freddie Lee Hall and an accomplice.

"Hall was sentenced to death, but after the Atkins decision, his lawyers challenged the sentence. They cited multiple diagnoses of Hall as having a mental retardation and quoted the state supreme court as having previously declared that Hall had been 'mentally retarded his entire life.' The state court, nonetheless, subsequently upheld Hall's death sentence on grounds that his IQ tests averaged higher than 70."

As SCOTUSblog noted about the arguments, "Although the preferred clinical term for the condition at issue in this case is 'intellectual disability'... both the lawyers and the Justices used the term 'mental retardation' in court."

The Supreme Court decided the case by a 5-4 vote, with the minority including Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia along with Chief Justice John Roberts.

Writing the majority's opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that Florida's law means if a prisoner is found to have an IQ above 70, "all further exploration of intellectual disability" is cut off. He said the "rigid rule ... creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional."

The justice wrote that "to impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being."

Florida's statute might have been interpreted in a way that jibed with the Atkins ruling, Kennedy said, noting that the law doesn't prohibit taking a standard error of measurement into account. But he said Florida's Supreme Court "has interpreted the provisions more narrowly."

"The Florida statute, as interpreted by its courts, misuses IQ score on its own terms," Kennedy wrote, "and this, in turn, bars consideration of evidence that must be considered in determining whether a defendant in a capi­tal case has intellectual disability. Florida's rule is invalid under the Constitution's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause."

Justice Alito disagreed, writing in a 20-page dissent that the Supreme Court "fails to grasp that Florida's system already accounts for the risk of testing error by allowing the introduction of multiple test scores."

He added, "Any evaluation of intellectual disability, whether based on objective tests or subjective observations, is 'complicated.' If conducting the proper analysis of multiple scores produces an IQ as reliable as the approach mandated by the Court, there is no basis for rejecting Florida's approach."

The decision in the case was announced Tuesday along with a ruling in another high-profile case, regarding the Secret Service's treatment of pro- and anti-Bush demonstrators during President George W. Bush's term in the White House.

Nina will have a follow-up report about the court's decisions later today on All Things Considered.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.