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U.S. Supreme Court Declares Florida’s Death Penalty Too Rigid in Low I.Q. Cases

| May 27, 2014

The execution wing at Florida's Starke prison, scene of many an execution involving intellectually disabled inmates. (© FlaglerLive)

The execution wing at Florida’s Starke prison, scene of many an execution involving intellectually disabled inmates. (© FlaglerLive)

Siding with a Death Row inmate convicted of killing a pregnant woman in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected Florida’s use of a “rigid” IQ score in determining whether defendants should be shielded from execution because they are intellectually disabled.

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The court, in a 5-4 decision, said Florida’s use of an IQ score of 70 “creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional.” In 2002, the court found that executing people who are intellectually disabled, or in the common terminology at the time, mentally retarded, violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment

Attorneys for Freddie Lee Hall, on Death Row for the February 1978 murder of 21-year-old Karol Hurst after she left a Leesburg grocery store, presented evidence in state courts that he had an IQ score of 71. The Florida Supreme Court, however, said Florida’s legal threshold for considering an inmate intellectually disabled was a score of 70.

Writing for the majority in Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said using the 70 IQ score as a cutoff prevents courts from considering other types of potentially important evidence in determining whether a person is intellectually disabled. That evidence can include such issues as social adaptation, medical history, behavioral records, school reports and family circumstances.

“Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” wrote Kennedy, who was joined in the majority by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “Courts must recognize, as does the medical community, that the IQ test is imprecise. This is not to say that an IQ test score is unhelpful. It is of considerable significance, as the medical community recognizes. But in using these scores to assess a defendant’s eligibility for the death penalty, a state must afford these test scores the same studied skepticism that those who design and use the tests do, and understand that an IQ test score represents a range rather than a fixed number. A state that ignores the inherent imprecision of these tests risks executing a person who suffers from intellectual disability.”

But Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a dissent that the 2002 case, known as Atkins v. Virginia, relied on states to determine how best to identify defendants with intellectual disabilities. The dissent also took issue with parts of the majority opinion about looking at a person’s adaptive behavior in making such determinations.

“No consensus exists among states or medical practitioners about what facts are most critical in analyzing that factor, and its measurement relies largely on subjective judgments,” wrote Alito, who was joined in the minority by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. “Florida’s approach avoids the disparities that reliance on such a factor tends to produce. It thus promotes consistency in the application of the death penalty and confidence that it is not being administered haphazardly.”

Tuesday’s decision sends Hall’s case back to Florida courts for further consideration. Hall, now 68, is being held at Union Correctional Institution.

Hall was sent to Death Row in the murder of Hurst, whose body was found in a wooded area of Sumter County. Hall and another man, Mack Ruffin, accosted Hurst after she left a Leesburg grocery store. The woman, who was pregnant, was beaten, shot and sexually assaulted, according to court records.

After leaving the scene of the Hurst murder, the men went to a Hernando County convenience store, where a clerk became suspicious and called police. Hall and Ruffin were arrested a short time later and were also charged with shooting to death sheriff’s Deputy Lonnie Coburn outside the store, the court records say.

The Hall case has bounced through the courts for more than three decades, with his IQ a heavily debated issue. The state attorney general’s office argued in a brief last year that the U.S. Supreme Court should not take up the case, in part pointing to findings by the Florida Supreme Court that evidence during a 2009 hearing indicated Hall had an IQ higher than 70.

“Not only did the Florida Supreme Court hold that Hall has not produced an IQ score falling in the range of mental retardation, the true facts are that Hall has scored as high as 80 on intelligence testing, and such a score is well outside any possible diagnosis of mental retardation,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Nunnelley wrote in a July brief. “This court (the U.S. Supreme Court) has long recognized that its jurisdiction does not lie to review decisions from state courts that rest on adequate and independent state law grounds, which this most certainly is.”

But Kennedy’s majority opinion Tuesday took issue with the state’s use of what he described as the “rigid” 70 IQ score.

“Florida’s rule disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways,” Kennedy wrote. “It takes an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant’s intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence. It also relies on a purportedly scientific measurement of the defendant’s abilities, his IQ score, while refusing to recognize that the score is, on its own terms, imprecise.”

–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

6 Responses for “U.S. Supreme Court Declares Florida’s Death Penalty Too Rigid in Low I.Q. Cases”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Keep all the murders house in swanking jails with good food, lots of perks and entertainment. Treat them to a wholesome long life at the taxpayers expense. All these pleasant living while the unlucky dead victims decompose in their graves.

  2. Steve Wolfe says:

    Seems as if Kennedy will say anything to interfere with the death penalty. He used lots of nebulous references to “experts” (none of which ever have political agendas), and taking issue with “rigid,” as if precision is not desirable. His issue with “rigid” is that it may not be precise enough. Then he throws in something for future death penalty decisions that is also terribly imprecise: taking family history into account. There’s enough in this decision to hamstring every death penalty case with legal appeal to stop it entirely. One more for the folks who hate taking lives. Well, except for the tiny, innocent lives. Those are still fair game.

  3. m&m says:

    Are they going to set IQ limits when the court orders the death penalty. If anybody on death row takes an IQ test to determine life or death, guess what they will get stupid real quick..

  4. Charles Gardner says:

    I may be wrong but wouldn’t death cause the same rigidity for all IQ’s?

  5. AMOS says:


  6. ryan says:

    Next thing you know, they will get rid of life in prison without parole too. The fact is, if the crime is brutal and cruel, has to take some planning. A good defense attorney can claim mental illness or mentally retarded and win a case if he words it right or pays the right experts. We need to continue to use the term mentally retarded because it is too confusing to use the term mentally disabled, which is pretty much mental illness, and evil has been replaced by the term mental illness as well. This has to stop if we don’t want to release bad people into society.

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