By the narrowest of margins, the U.S. Supreme Court Monday spared for now the life of Freddie Lee Hall, a convicted murderer in Florida who had sought succor under the shadow of Atkins v. Virginia, the Court’s 2002 decision that purported to outlaw the execution of the intellectually disabled in America. To understand why the Court’s ruling in Hall v. Florida is just, it’s instructive to review just how hard Florida has tried to execute Hall over the decades.
The plaintiff came to death row in 1978 after killing a pregnant woman and a deputy sheriff. Before Atkins, the Florida Supreme Court had declared that Hall had been significantly “mentally retarded” his whole life but that he still was eligible for the death penalty because there was no constitutional rule precluding such executions. Then, in Atkins, the Supreme Court by a vote of 6-3 recognized just such a rule, declaring that the execution of the intellectually disabled was a violation of the Eighth Amendment. So Florida promptly changed its tune and declared that Hall was not mentally disabled enough after all.
Under the state’s post-Atkins standard, overwhelming evidence that Hall is functionally illiterate, is unable to understand adult conversation or activities, and was developmentally disabled as a child was irrelevant to determining whether he fell under the Atkins exception. This was so in Florida because his IQ-test scores hovered between 60 and 80, often above the arbitrary cutoff of 70 that the state had adopted. To make matters more definitive, at least from the state’s perspective, officials refused to account for any standard error of measurement embraced by the scientific community.