Twelve years ago, in Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal.” The Atkins decision was grounded in the national consensus that offenders with intellectual disabilities have certain impairments – such as “diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand the reactions of others” – that make them less morally culpable and place them at a heightened risk of wrongful execution.
Out of that understanding, the Court determined that executing offenders with an intellectual disability undermines both “the penological purposes served by the death penalty” and “the strength of the procedural protections” guarded by the Court’s capital jurisprudence. Such punishment is cruel, unusual, and “excessive”; as such, it violates the Eighth Amendment.
Despite its strong prohibitive language, however, the Atkins opinion contained a significant loophole – the Court left “to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon its execution of sentences.” This approach has led to inconsistency among the states in determining which defendants are within a class of offenders for which the Eighth Amendment prohibits capital punishment.
Following Atkins, many states have implemented tests that consider assessments of both an individuals intellectual functioning (e.g., IQ tests) and an individual’s conceptual, social and practical skills. For example, in Coleman v. State, the Supreme Court of Tennessee held that a defendant’s raw IQ test scores are not to be treated at “face value” and has permitted defendants to introduce evidence regarding these test scores, including margins of error.
Florida courts, in contrast, have adopted a rigid test that individuals who have a raw IQ score above 70 do not have an intellectual disability. That standard faced a stiff legal challenge last Monday, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Hall v. Florida.
Hall v. Florida concerns the brutal February 1978 murder of Karol Hurst. Hurst, who was 21-years-old and seven months pregnant at the time, was abducted by Freddie Lee Hall from a Pantry Pride parking lot in Leesburg, Fla., after shopping for groceries. Hall and another man wanted her car to carry out a convenience store robbery. But rather than simply taking the car, Hall forced Hurst into her vehicle and drover her to a wooded area, where she was later found beaten, sexually assaulted and shot.
From 1968 to 2008, Hall took nine different IQ tests. The results range from a high score of 80 in 1986 to a low score of 60 in 1988. Across all nine tests, Hall averaged an IQ score of 72.66. The most recent test was in 2008, in which Hall scored an IQ of 72. Based on these results, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Hall was eligible to be executed under Florida law.
Before the Supreme Court last week, lawyers for Mr. Hall argued that Florida uses an unacceptable method to determine who is, and who isn’t, mentally retarded. The State of Florida countered that the Supreme Court does not require any particular definition of mental retardation, and argued that the states are best left to determine a question like this.
The case is a potential landmark in the Court’s death penalty jurisprudence. In Hall v. Florida, the Court could establish a national standard for executions involving individuals with intellectual disabilities, or the Court could reaffirm that states retain discretion to decide for themselves who to execute. But if the Supreme Court really meant it when it said that the death penalty is “not a suitable punishment” for the intellectually disabled, it must close the Atkins loophole and abrogate Florida’s arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty.
Florida’s test is unscientific and ignores the professional consensus regarding the diagnosis of intellectual disability. In defining intellectual disability, courts most often look to the standard laid out by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (“AAIDD”). The AAIDD defines intellectual disability as “characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills. This disability originates before the age of 18.”
These criteria are not disjunctive inquiries. The first two criteria – intellectual functioning and adaptive deficits – work in concert with each other to paint a picture of not simply an individual with a subnormal IQ, but of one who suffers multiple challenges in his or her daily life. The third criteria – age of onset – exists to limit the diagnosis to deficits occurring in the developmental period prior to adulthood to distinguish it from non-developmental disorders.
IQ scores should not exist in a vacuum. An individual may be able to achieve a higher IQ score than other intellectually disabled individuals, but have such significant limitations in adaptive functioning that a combination of the two elements clearly show him as intellectually disabled. Therefore, a comprehensive assessment requires concurrent analysis of intellectual and adaptive functioning, and the ultimate clinical judgment must be rooted in objective criteria and multiple sources of data, including, for example, school records and behavioral rating scales.
Florida’s used of a bright-line IQ score cutoff to identify defendants with intellectual disabilities cuts against the unanimous professional consensus by treating intellectual and adaptive functioning as sequential and disjunctive inquiries. And even though Atkins left the states leeway in determining what constitutes intellectual disability, Florida’s rigid framework is not consistent with Atkins. As the Indiana Supreme Court noted in Pruitt v. State, “Although Atkins recognized the possibility of varying state standards of mental retardation, the grounding of the prohibition in the Federal Constitution implies that there must be at least a nationwide minimum. The Eighth Amendment must have the same content in all United States jurisdictions.”
There is no claim that Hall wasn’t involved in the heinous and reprehensible murder. But if the bar against executing the intellectually disabled is to mean anything, he cannot be executed.
Featured Image Credit: CACorrections on Wikimedia Commons