The Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday over the appeal of death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall. Hall claims he is exempt from the death penalty because he is mentally disabled, despite testing above 70 on most of the IQ tests he has taken. A 70 is the maximum IQ for mental disability in Florida, the state in which Hall is imprisoned. The issue before the court is how states decide who is eligible for the death penalty 12 years after the Supreme Court disallowed the execution of the mentally disabled.
The state’s strict cutoff of an IQ of 70 was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court, who ruled that there is no room for exception. Several justices believed that Florida should take into account the standard margin of error in IQ test results or consider additional factors, while other justices were more inclined to leave the state to decide the determining factors under the court’s 2002 decision in Atkins vs. Virginia.
In the Atkins case, the Supreme Court was presented with the appeal of a death row inmate with an IQ of 59. The court held that executing death row inmates who are mentally disabled was a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which forbids the use of cruel and unusual punishment. The decision provided general guidelines but gave the states the right to define what constitutes “mental disability.”
Seth Waxman, the defense lawyer for Hall, told the court that the problem with Florida’s strict cutoff at 70 is that it does not allow for error involved in administering the tests, which he said is not a matter of opinion but fact based on the statistics. Considering the range of possible error, raising the cutoff to an IQ of 75 would be a more accurate way to determine mental disability, he argued.
Hall has generally scored slightly higher than the 70 cutoff. Even so, the 68-year-old death row inmate has been considered mentally disabled or “mentally retarded” as it was referred to at the time, since the 1950’s, according to school documents submitted by the defense. Hall was also ruled mentally disabled by Florida courts in 1992 and 1999, with one of the judges concluding that Hall had been mentally disabled his whole life, only for the ruling to be overturned in 2009. Psychiatrists and psychologists who have examined Hall support the claim that he is mentally disabled. They say that IQ testing alone is insufficient grounds for determining mental disability and that an accurate diagnosis requires additional factors to be considered.
Hall was sentenced to death and has been on death row for over 35 years for killing Karol Hurst in 1978. The victim was a 21-year-old pregnant woman who Hall and an accomplice abducted while looking for a car to use in a robbery. Hall and the accomplice drove Hurst to a wooded area, where she was beaten, raped and shot before being dragged further into the woods. Later that night, responding to a call from a convenience store, Deputy Lonnie Coburn got into an altercation with Hall and the accomplice. The deputy was disarmed, shot, and killed with his own gun.
The issue before the court is Hall’s mental capacity, not his guilt. After hearing the arguments on the appeal, five justices, a majority on the Supreme Court, indicated that the margin of error involved in administering IQ tests was a major issue when determining the fate of a death row inmate. A decision is expected by late June.
By David Tulis