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.