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
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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.

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