The Supreme Court Just Dealt Another Blow to the Death Penalty

A 5-4 decision strikes down Florida’s standard of execution for intellectually disabled convicts.

A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
See more stories about...
Dustin Volz
May 27, 2014, 7:28 a.m.

The Su­preme Court on Tues­day tossed out a death sen­tence for a Flor­ida man on grounds that the state ap­plied an overly ri­gid stand­ard for de­term­in­ing wheth­er he was men­tally dis­abled.

In a 5-4 rul­ing, the the Court de­term­ined that Fred­die Lee Hall de­serves an­oth­er op­por­tun­ity to demon­strate that he should not be put to death be­cause of his low in­tel­lec­tu­al abil­it­ies. It marks the latest set­back for a ma­ligned cap­it­al-pun­ish­ment sys­tem that has en­dured re­newed scru­tiny since a botched ex­e­cu­tion in Ok­lahoma last month.

Flor­ida had been re­ly­ing solely on IQ tests to de­cide wheth­er an in­mate could claim men­tal dis­ab­il­ity, and it ap­plied a strict stand­ard that any score above 70 demon­strated suf­fi­cient cog­nit­ive func­tion­ing. But that stand­ard alone is not good enough, the Court’s ma­jor­ity said, be­cause it does not ac­count for mar­gins of er­ror.

Many med­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als have ar­gued that a men­tally dis­abled per­son can score as high as 75 on an IQ ex­am. Hall, who was con­victed for rap­ing and mur­der­ing a preg­nant wo­man and killing an­oth­er wo­man in in 1978, had scored a 71 on his IQ test.

“The death pen­alty is the gravest sen­tence our so­ci­ety may im­pose,” wrote Justice An­thony Kennedy for a ma­jor­ity joined by the bench’s four lib­er­al justices. “Per­sons fa­cing that most severe sanc­tion must have a fair op­por­tun­ity to show that the Con­sti­tu­tion pro­hib­its their ex­e­cu­tion.”

A 2002 Su­preme Court rul­ing pro­hib­its the ex­e­cu­tion of men­tally dis­abled per­sons as a form of cruel and un­usu­al pun­ish­ment. But Flor­ida’s ri­gid rule “mis­con­strues the Court’s state­ments” in that case, Atkins v. Vir­gin­ia, that in­tel­lec­tu­al dis­ab­il­ity “is char­ac­ter­ized by an IQ of ‘ap­prox­im­ately 70’,” ac­cord­ing to the ma­jor­ity.

Kennedy’s con­clud­ing rhet­or­ic­al flour­ishes may al­lude to the re­cent con­tro­versy that has gripped the death pen­alty since Ok­lahoma’s botched ex­e­cu­tion of Clayton Lock­ett. His sweep­ing lan­guage could also be a boon to death-row in­mates in oth­er states who are chal­len­ging sen­tences.

“Flor­ida’s law con­tra­venes our Na­tion’s com­mit­ment to dig­nity and its duty to teach hu­man de­cency as the mark of a civ­il­ized world,” Kennedy wrote. “The States are labor­at­or­ies for ex­per­i­ment­a­tion, but those ex­per­i­ments may not deny the ba­sic dig­nity the Con­sti­tu­tion pro­tects.”

Rep­res­ent­ing the Court’s dis­sent­ing con­ser­vat­ives, Justice Samuel Alito ar­gued that Kennedy leaned too heav­ily on the opin­ion of psy­cho­logy and psy­chi­at­ric ex­perts — “which at best rep­res­ent the views of a small pro­fes­sion­al elite” — and did not con­sider so­ci­ety’s broad­er stand­ards.

No in­mate on death row has been ex­ecuted in Amer­ica since Lock­ett’s death on April 29. In that time, four sched­uled ex­e­cu­tions have been stayed, and an­oth­er has been com­muted. Among oth­er troubles, act­ive death-pen­alty states are find­ing it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to pro­cure the leth­al-in­jec­tion drugs ne­ces­sary to carry out their death sen­tences amid boy­cotts from European man­u­fac­tur­ers.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×