U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Rigid IQ-Score Cutoff in Capital Cases

By Mark Walsh — May 27, 2014 4 min read
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A state may not set an IQ score of 70 or below as the rigid cutoff that would permit it to execute a person with an intellectual disability in a capital case, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

The case of a longtime Florida death row inmate whose teachers once classified him as “mentally retarded” is one that invited much debate over the role of IQ scores and the educational and intellectual development of capital defendants. It is a followup to the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, when the court ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits capital punishment for those with mental retardation.

The new case addresses the role that Florida and as many as eight other states place in a rigid IQ cutoff score of 70. Those who have scored above that cutoff are not eligible to have their mental development taken into consideration in sentencing for capital crimes.

In its 5-4 decision in Hall v. Florida (Case No. 12-10882), the Supreme Court said that was wrong.

“Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. “Courts must recognize, as does the medical community, that the IQ test is imprecise. ... [I]n using these scores to assess a defendant’s eligibility for the death penalty, a state must afford these test scores the same studied skepticism that those who design and use the tests do, and understand that an IQ test score represents a range rather than a fixed number.”

The decision overturned a ruling by Florida’s highest court that barred its sentencing courts from considering the standard error of measurement, or SEM, in particular cases. The Florida court ruling was bad news for Freddie Lee Hall, 68, who has been on the state’s death row since 1978 for the murder of a 21-year-old pregnant women.

Hall’s IQ scores have ranged from 71 to 80, and his lawyers sought to introduce other evidence of his intellectual disabilities, including his school records and other evidence from his educational experience.

Hall’s teachers classified him as in need of a “special teacher,” which he never received. Hall was socially promoted for several years before he dropped out of high school. Hall’s teachers noted that his “mental maturity is far below his chronological age,” that he was “extra slow in comprehension” and “slow in all of his work,” his lawyers argued in a Supreme Court brief.

Hall is one of many capital defendants who have reached backed to their school years for evidence of intellectual disabilities since the Atkins decision.

Florida’s rigid cutoff score of 70 or below “is in direct opposition to the views of those who design, administer, and interpret the IQ test,” Kennedy said in his opinion, which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. “By failing to take into account the standard error of measurement, Florida’s law not only contradicts the test’s own design but also bars an essential part of a sentencing court’s inquiry into adaptive functioning.”

“Freddie Lee Hall may or may not be intellectually disabled, but the law requires that he have the opportunity to present evidence of his intellectual disability, including deficits in adaptive functioning over his lifetime,” Kennedy said.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the dissent, which was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Alito mocked Kennedy’s reliance on language from the Atkins decision that prohibiting the death penalty in certain circumstances embodies the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

“Now, however, the court strikes down a state law based on the evolving standards of professional societies, most notably the American Psychiatric Association,” Alito said.

By his count, Alito said, 10 states do not require that the standard error of measurement be taken into account in rejecting a death row defendant’s claim of intellectual disability. And of the remaining 21 states with the death penalty, nine of those have either said nothing about the SEM or have not clarified whether they require its use.

“Accordingly, of the death-penalty states, 10 (including Florida) do not require that the SEM be taken into account, 12 consider the SEM, and 9 have not taken a definitive position on this question,” Alito said. “These statistics cannot be regarded as establishing a national consensus against Florida’s approach.”

Alito said it remains unclear, and states will be confused, by whether a defendant may introduce non-test evidence of intellectual disability whenever the defendant’s IQ test score is 75 or lower (on the mistaken assumption, he says, that the SEM for most tests if 5 points), or when other factors are at play with a score of 70 or below.

“In my view,” Alito said, “Florida has adopted a sensible standard that comports with the longstanding belief that IQ tests are the best measure of intellectual functioning.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.