Supreme Court Strikes Down Florida's IQ Threshold for the Death Penalty

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In a 5-to-4 ruling on Tuesday, the Supreme Court determined that Florida's strict threshold for deciding whether an inmate may be executed for murder violates the Eighth Amendment. Florida determines whether an inmate may be killed on the basis of his or her IQ score: if it's above 70, the state will carry out the death penalty. In his opinion for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the rigid rule "creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional." Kennedy adds that the IQ cut-off point also "disregards established medical practice."

Inmate Freddie Lee Hall was sentenced to death for murder decades ago (his guilt was not at issue today), but has repeatedly challenged that sentence as the courts clarified the constitutional threshold for capital punishment. As evidence, Hall has previously submitted (among other things) several IQ tests with scores between 60 and 80. Florida requires inmates to have at least one test below 70 before presenting additional evidence of intellectual disability; of the two scores admitted by the courts, Hall's lowest score was 71. The Florida Supreme Court heard Hall's case and determined that the state's strict cut-off was constitutional. In response, Kennedy wrote today: 

Florida’s rule disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways. It takes an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant’s intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence. It also relies on a purportedly scientific measurement of the defendant’s abilities, his IQ score, while refusing to recognize that the score is, on its own terms, imprecise. 

States more or less have been left to their own devices in how to implement the Supreme Court's 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision, which determined that it is unconstitutional to execute "mentally retarded" inmates. Florida, along with a handful of other states, has used various controversial guidelines to mark its cutoff points, which it argues are in line with the 2002 decision. As Andrew Cohen points out, Tuesday's decision here could have implications for other pending executions of intellectually disabled inmates in Florida and in other states with narrow guidelines.

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Interestingly, in addition to providing some clarity on the constitutionality of Florida's standard, Kennedy's opinion also updates the terminology used to describe ineligible inmates. "Previous opinions of this Court have employed the term 'mental retardation,'" Kennedy wrote, adding, "this opinion uses the term 'intellectual disability' to describe the identical phenomenon." 

Justice Alito wrote the dissent for the decision, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Scalia, and Justice Thomas. The full opinion is below: 



This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.