Thanks for joining us on this special, Veteran’s Day edition of the Criminal Law Review blog! One of our talented staff editors, Jennifer Hudson, wrote this piece regarding the Supreme Court’s take on the standards for punishment of mentally disabled individuals.
Hall v. Florida
Hall was sentenced to death by a Florida jury after he and an accomplice kidnapped, raped, beat, and murdered a pregnant 21-year-old newlywed and killed a sheriff’s deputy attempting to arrest them outside a convenience store they were planning to rob. Florida did not consider intellectual disability a statutorily mitigating factor at the time. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in Hitchcock that capital defendants must be allowed to present non-statutory mitigating evidence. Hall was resentenced and again received the death penalty after presenting substantial evidence of his intellectual disability in the form of lay and expert testimony. Although the sentencing court found substantial evidence to support the finding that Hall had been mentally retarded his entire life, it stated mental retardation cannot be used to excuse moral culpability, and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed Hall’s sentence.
In 2002, the Supreme Court in Atkins held execution of mentally retarded persons constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Hall filed a motion in 2004 that he cannot be executed by Florida based on his intellectual disability. More than five years later, Florida held a hearing where Hall presented evidence of his disability, including an IQ score of 71 (he had received nine IQ evaluations, with two IQ scores below 70, but the court excluded the scores for evidentiary reasons). However, Florida law requires an IQ test score of 70 or below before a defendant can present any additional evidence of intellectual disability, thus Hall was found not to meet the threshold requirement. The Florida Supreme Court held the 70-point threshold was constitutional and denied Hall’s appeal. Hall applied for a writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the Florida statute.
The issue being decided by the Supreme Court is whether a Florida statute violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment when it precludes presentation of evidence regarding a capital defendant’s intellectual disability if the defendant’s IQ score is above 70.
The nation’s highest court found that the Florida statute denying a capital defendant’s presentation of evidence regarding an intellectual disability based on an IQ score of 70 or more is unconstitutional because it creates an unacceptable risk that people with intellectual disabilities will be executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment. (5-4 decision; Justice Alito dissenting, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia and Thomas).
Because Atkins did not specify how states should determine whether a capital defendant has an intellectual disability, the Supreme Court began by looking at how intellectual disability is defined by the medical community and if the Florida statute is consistent with that definition. While the Court found the statute on its face is consistent with the definition of intellectual disability used by medical professionals, it found that it has been applied too narrowly by the Florida Supreme Court. By holding a capital defendant with an IQ score of 70 or more is barred from presenting additional evidence of an intellectual disability, the Court found Florida law disregards established medical practices by failing to allow the consideration of other evidence of a disability (evidence of past performance, environment, and upbringing) and failing to recognize that an IQ score should be read as range, rather than a fixed number.
The Supreme Court then examined how other states determine whether a defendant has an intellectual disability to see whether the Florida statute comports with society’s views of humane treatment. It found that 41 states have rejected a strict 70-point cutoff, recognizing the inherent margin of error in IQ testing, with only two other states mandating a strict 70-point cutoff (Virginia and Kentucky) as a threshold issue. The Court found every other state (other than Virginia) whose law has been interpreted by its courts has sided contrary to Florida.
The Court then looked Atkins, which, although it left the issue of how the determine an intellectual disability to the states, mentioned the error inherent in IQ testing. The Court found that states’ ability to determine what constitutes an intellectual disability does not give them “unfettered discretion” to define the scope of the protection afforded by the Eighth Amendment because they are bound to adhere to the clinical definitions of intellectual disability.
Finally, the Supreme Court ruled the Florida statute was unconstitutional, as interpreted by the Florida courts, because of the unacceptable risk that intellectually disabled defendants would be executed by denying any defendant with an IQ score above 70 the ability to present additional evidence of an intellectual disability. The Court mentioned that not one medical professional supported the 70-point cutoff. Of particular interest was the fact that IQ scores are approximations that are not intended to be final, infallible assessments of intellectual ability. The Court found a state that refuses to acknowledge the inherent uncertainty in IQ tests runs the risk of executing a person with an intellectual disability. The Court ruled states must allow defendants whose IQ score falls within the tests margin of error to present additional evidence of intellectual disability. It held the Florida statute violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, reversed the Florida Supreme Court, and remanded the case.
How did the courts come up with the 70 IQ cutoff in the first place? Could a black-letter rule be made to prevent intellectually challenged individuals from falling through the “cracks” of our legal system? Please tell us what you think by commenting below.