The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Florida law that set strict criteria based on IQ test scores to determine a defendant’s eligibility for the death penalty. (Photo via Mike Renlund)

The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Florida law that set strict criteria based on IQ test scores to determine a defendant’s eligibility for the death penalty. (Photo via Mike Renlund)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

This week the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5 to 4 decision that a Florida law setting strict criteria based on IQ test scores to determine a defendant’s eligibility for the death penalty is unconstitutional. Justices ruled the state’s law was too rigid.

According to The New York Times, the decision is part of a trend in the court to limit capital punishment.

The Times reports:

“Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of 70 on an I.Q. test,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in a 5-to-4 decision.

Justice Kennedy was joined by the court’s four-member liberal wing, a recurring coalition in cases concerning harsh punishments.

When the court barred the execution of people with mental disabilities in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia, it largely let the states determine who qualified. Tuesday’s decision, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the four dissenters, represented a “sea change” in the court’s approach.

The ruling will affect not only Florida, which has the nation’s second-largest death row after California, but also as many as eight other states by Justice Kennedy’s count, including Alabama and Virginia. They will now be required to take a less mechanical approach to mental disability in capital cases, said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra.

“Death row inmates commonly suffer from multidimensional mental problems,” Mr. Freedman said. “Today’s ruling requires courts to investigate these fully, by looking at the elephant rather than the tail.”

This particular case in Florida comes from a 1978 murder in which Freddie L. Hall shot a 21 year old pregnant woman to death after sexually assaulting her. A court had ruled early on in the case that Hall was mentally handicapped, but Florida had come up with a standard before the Atkins case that overruled that decision.

Also, the Atkins decisions didn’t set strict guidelines for what constitutes an intellectual disability. The decision only provided general guidance.

According to the Times, the court considered three things as reasonable proof of a disability: “’subaverage intellectual functioning,’ meaning low I.Q. scores; a lack of fundamental social and practical skills; and the presence of both conditions before age 18. The court said I.Q. scores under ‘approximately 70’ typically indicate disability.”

A Florida law enacted not long before the Atkins decision created what Mr. Hall’s lawyers called an “inflexible bright-line cutoff” requiring proof of an I.Q. of 70 or below.

In 2012, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Hall was eligible to be executed because his I.Q. had been measured at various times as 71, 73 and 80.

That approach, Justice Kennedy wrote, had at least two flaws. One was that it failed to take account of standard errors of measurement.

“An individual’s score is best understood as a range of scores on either side of the recorded score,” he wrote.

The second problem, he said, was that a rigid cutoff excludes consideration of other evidence. “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” he wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida applauded the Supreme Court for this decision.

Via a press release, the group’s Executive Director Howard Simon said:

 “No one should be surprised that the U.S. Supreme Court will not permit the Florida legislature to impose the death penalty contrary to what Justice Kennedy declared “our nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world.”

“The Supreme Court is telling Florida leaders — who passed the unconstitutional law allowing for the execution of Freddie Hall — that if you want to impose the death penalty, it must be done in a way that respects standards of decency and basic human rights.

“This is not the first time the Legislature has ignored standards of decency set by the U.S. Supreme Court and it likely will not be the last. The strict IQ rule struck down by the Supreme Court today is just one example of the many ways in which our state’s death penalty system falls short of constitutional and human rights standards. We should expect the Supreme Court to take more control over Florida’s death penalty system in the future.

“Florida’s death penalty system is broken, and if state leaders wish to continue sentencing people to die, they must address that system’s failings. Florida is the only state in the country where the vote of a simple majority of jurors can recommend that a person receive a sentence of death.  This has contributed to our state’s record of having the most errors and exonerations from death row.

“Unless the Legislature fixes the system by which death can be imposed by the vote of a simple majority, it is likely that the Court will take that – and more — out of their hands.”

The Miami Herald’s Marc Caputo reports that Gov. Rick Scott has so far been generally silent on the ruling.

According to the Herald,

Gov. Rick Scott wouldn’t comment on the case, saying he hadn’t read the ruling, which blocks the execution of Freddie Lee Hall, who was sentenced to death in 1978 for his role in in the kidnap, rape and murder of a pregnant woman as he stole her car in a grocery-store robbery that also led to the killing of a Hernando County sheriff’s deputy.

“Capital punishment is something that’s a solemn duty that I have and I take it very seriously,” Scott said. “But I’ll review that case when I see it.”

Asked more broadly, about why the state executes mentally ill people in general, Scott again referred to Hall’s specific case.

“I’ll review that case and see,” Scott said.

Asked about the general principle of executing the mentally disabled, Scott said “yeah, I’ll review that case.”

According to the Times, somewhere between three to eight states—depending on interpretation—have similar IQ test cut off laws on the books and could be affected by this ruling.