U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Florida Death Penalty Case

Should A Man With An I.Q. Of 71 Be Put To Death?

The Supreme Court of the United States has held that a person who is ruled mentally deficient can not be put to death. In a landmark 2002 case, Atkins v. Virginia, the justices determined a that executing someone who is mentally retarded constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. However, the justices never set a benchmark for what constitutes a low intelligence quotient, commonly known as I.Q., or mental retardation. Instead, the justices left it to the individual states to set their own line.

Florida did just that, and the so-called “bright line” cutoff number legislators chose is 70. Other states have their own number. For the accused in Florida, if the I.Q. is found to be 71 or higher, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled a sentence of death does not violate the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, as defined in Amendment VIII of the U.S. Constitution and refined by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Atkins v. Virginia ruling of 2002.

Current Death Penalty Case Dates To 1978

Freddie Lee HallThe case before the justices this week involves Freddie Lee Hall, who was convicted of the 1978 murders of a pregnant woman and a sheriff’s deputy. Mr. Hall was resentenced in 1992, and his death penalty was upheld. At the time he was resentenced, he was found to be mentally retarded, one of the legal terms commonly used for people with a low I.Q. Florida’s Supreme Court, ruling on Mr. Hall’s case in December 2012, upheld the death sentence, despite the fact Mr. Hall’s I.Q. is 71, just one point above the so-called “bright line” cutoff for mental retardation, which was established long after Hall’s 1992 resentencing.

“Once the statute is applied, Hall morphs from someone who has been ‘mentally retarded his entire life’ to someone who is statutorily barred from attempting to demonstrate concurrent deficits in adaptive functioning …” ~ Florida Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry, writing a dissenting opinion when the state Supreme Court upheld Mr. Hall’s death penalty sentence.

Mr. Hall’s attorney, Eric Pinkard, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that there have been several I.Q. tests showing Mr. Hall’s intelligence quotient to be as low as 60 and as high as the current number, 71, which was the result of a 2009 I.Q. test.

I.Q. Does Not Stay The Same, According To Numerous Studies

It is well settled that an I.Q. changes over time, and that a person’s emotional condition, nutrition, physical health, social and economic status, and a host of other factors, can all influence an I.Q. test result. The American Psychological Association published a 1996 report on I.Q., with research notes from a number of collegiate psychologists, including one from the University of North Florida, that found I.Q. varies based on these factors. The report can be found at the University of Connecticut website. Another I.Q. study, by the Journal for the Association of Psychological Science is also online for public viewing.

When the Florida Supreme Court upheld Mr. Hall’s death sentence, Mr. Pinkard filed a writ of certiorari within a matter of months, appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Part of his brief includes the dissenting statements of at least two of the Florida justices, Hon. Jorge Labarga and Hon. James E.C. Perry.

Florida's Supreme Court
The Florida Supreme Court ruled in December 2012 that while Mr. Hall had been ruled “mentally retarded”, his I.Q. of 71 did not meet the legislative standard that would prevent him from being executed. That number, called the “bright-line” cutoff, is 70. The ruling prompted the current U.S. Supreme Court challenge.

Justice Labarga wrote, “The situation present in Florida, in which the Legislature has established a bright-line cutoff score that this Court has upheld, now creates a significant risk that a defendant who has once been found to be mentally retarded may still be executed.”

Justice Perry agreed with Justice Labarga, writing, in part, “The current interpretation of the statutory scheme will lead to the execution of a retarded man in this case. Hall had been found by the courts to be mentally retarded before the statute was adopted.”

Florida Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry
Justice James E.C. Perry

Justice Perry’s dissenting opinion further explained that the state legislature’s adoption of the so-called “bright-line cutoff” for mental retardation retroactively altered Mr. Hall’s status. “Once the statute is applied, Hall morphs from someone who has been ‘mentally retarded his entire life’ to someone who is statutorily barred from attempting to demonstrate concurrent deficits in adaptive functioning to establish retardation.” In other words, the law prevents Mr. Hall from proving his mental deficiency because the I.Q. score allegedly demonstrates the opposite circumstance.

Supreme Court Ruling Will Affect States Other Than Florida

The case is complex, and it could have ramifications beyond Florida. Brian Kammer, an attorney in Georgia who has represented low-I.Q. defendants on death row, said the case has the potential to force states to rewrite their  “bright-line” cutoff laws. “To the extend [a Supreme Court ruling] deals with a state’s prerogative to define ‘mental retardation’ a certain way, it would very likely have applicability to other states … in setting limits on that prerogative,” Kammer told USA Today in October 2013.

The U.S. Supreme Court docket page for this case may be found on the court’s government website.