The death penalty and IQ meet this week at the United States Supreme Court with a lot at stake. That is when the high court will examine yet another controversial aspect of the death penalty. Whether a state can execute a person based on his IQ score.
The case has come before the justices from Florida, a state that still sanctions the death penalty. Thirty-six years ago a man by the name of Freddie Hall committed a double murder.
Hill is 68-years old now and illiterate. He dropped out of high school and has spent more than half his life behind bars. His IQ scores have ranged between 60 and 80 with most of his scores landing in the low 70s. 100 is considered average. Florida, however, maintains that 70 is the cutoff score for determining intellectual disability. As a result, prosecutors in Florida assert that Hall can and should be executed.
The Supreme Court, however, has already ruled that executing inmates who are intellectually disabled or mentally retarded is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment. The newer argument before the justices is the standard on determining that degree of mental disability.
In addition to a 70 IQ score, the state of Florida also demands a deficits in adaptive behavior standard as well as an onset of that behavior before the age of 18 for those who claim mental impairment.
The Supreme Court will be scrutinizing the IQ test standard. Attorneys for Hall are arguing that an IQ test, like other tests, have margins of error meaning that on any given day a person may score 75 but several days later score a 70, or lower.
In that sense, Hall’s attorneys will argue, that he fits the profile of someone who should not be executed. In addition to the low IQ test scores, Hall demonstrates other serious mental disabilities including poor short-term memory, a distinct speech impediment, the inability to perform simple arithmetic, incapacity to understand basic adult conversation, and an inability to cook.
Florida, on the other hand, will argue before the high court that states should have substantial leeway in determining intellectual disability and that Florida’s test is an acceptable one. As a result, the state argues, Hall’s execution should proceed.
In his brief, Florida attorney general argues that Florida just didn’t make up the generally acceptable IQ test methodology and adds that states have enjoyed a good deal of discretion in the past to judge their own scientific standards.
Florida also points to what Hall did back in 1978 as evidence that he was not mentally retarded or seriously mentally impaired.
According to court records, Hall was on parole and with an accomplice kidnapped a 21-year-old pregnant woman and then took her to a remote location. Hall claimed it was the companion who raped and killed the woman. The accomplice said Hall was the primary actor. Later the two men killed a sheriff.
In 2002 the Supreme Court, in a case called Atkins v. Virginia, ruled that executions were illegal for persons with mental retardation. The court was divided, however, and left it up to the states to define mental retardation. Since then, some states do take the margin of error on IQ test scores into consideration while some state use the 70 score as a cutoff, while other states, like Mississippi, use a 75 test score.
The Supreme Court argument comes at a time when the death penalty is becoming increasingly disfavored.
Washington State’s governor ended capital punishment in that state as long as he in office. Eighteen states have already abolished the death penalty, including seven states in the past year. All eyes will be on the Supreme Court as it grapples with the death penalty and IQ.
By Jim McCullaugh