Supreme Court Rejects Strict IQ Cutoff for Evaluation of Intellectual Disability in Capital Cases - May 27, 2014
Posted on: 8/18/2014 03:00:45 PM by Kouros

On May 27, 2014, in Hall v. Florida (12-10882), the United States Supreme Court clarified the standards by which courts should consider whether capital defendants are intellectually disabled (mentally retarded) and therefore ineligible for the death penalty. The Court’s holding struck down Florida’s rigid rule declaring that any person with an IQ score above 70 could not be intellectually disabled as being in violation of its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), declaring that the Eighth Amendment prohibits capital punishment for the mentally retarded. The opinion can be read here.

Freddie Lee Hall, a Florida death-row prisoner, had been diagnosed with impairments such as chronic psychosis and deficits in learning that leave him functionally illiterate and with a short-term memory equivalent to a first grader's. In fact, in a 1993 opinion, the Florida Supreme Court reflected a trial court's factual findings that Mr. Hall has been "mentally retarded all of his life." Hall v. State, 614 So.2d 473, 480 (Fla. 1993). Yet, after Mr. Hall's lawyers filed a petition challenging his death sentence under Atkins, the Florida Supreme Court decided that he did not meet the necessary criteria for mental retardation because his IQ had been measured by a post-conviction expert as 71, one point above the state's common law cutoff. Hall v. State, 109 So.3d 704, 709 (Fla. 2012). Mr. Hall's lawyers argued that Florida's reliance on an inflexible bright-line IQ score for determining whether people are eligible for the death penalty will fail to identify people who are mentally retarded and therefore cannot be sentenced to death or executed, pursuant to Atkins.

The Supreme Court agreed and held that “[i]ntellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”  Slip Op. at 21.  Citing to medical clinical and professional norms, the Court recognized that IQ is but a single factor among several that must be examined in any complete assessment of intellectual disability.  See Slip Op. at 20-21 (“[A]wareness of the IQ test’s limits is of particular importance when conducting the conjunctive assessment necessary to assess an individual’s intellectual ability.”).  The Court also emphasized that any accurate IQ score must take into account the Standard Error of Measurement (“SEM”), a statistical adjustment accounting for the test’s inherent imprecision and noted that any individual IQ score is best understood as a range, rather than as a fixed number.  See Slip. Op. at 10.

The Court went on to tally the jurisdictions, like Florida, that employ a strict IQ-score cutoff for evaluating intellectual disability in capital cases as compared to those jurisdictions that reject such a rule and concluded that “rejection of the strict 70 cutoff in the vast majority of States . . . provide[s] strong evidence of consensus that our society does not regard this strict cutoff as proper or humane.”  Slip Op. at 16.