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This undated photo made available by the Florida Department of Corrections shows inmate Freddie Lee Hall. Hall. The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that states must look beyond an intelligence test score in borderline cases of mental disability to determine whether a death row inmate is eligible to be executed. The justices said in a 5-4 decision that Florida and a handful of other states cannot rely solely on an IQ score above 70 to bar an inmate from claiming mental disability. Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the court that IQ tests have a margin of error, and those inmates whose scores fall within the margin must be allowed to present other evidence of mental disability. (AP Photo/Florida Department of Corrections, HO)

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Justices add limits to death penalty

  • Article by: Adam Liptak
  • New York Times
  • May 27, 2014 - 8:09 PM

– The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday continued a trend of limiting capital punishment, ruling that Florida’s IQ score cutoff was too rigid to decide which mentally disabled individuals must be spared the death penalty.

“Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of 70 on an IQ test,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority in a 5-4 decision. 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 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, but also as many as eight other states by Kennedy’s count, including Virginia and Alabama. 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.

Kennedy said that closer supervision of the states is warranted. “The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose,” he wrote. “Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution.”

The case arose from the 1978 murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 and pregnant when Freddie L. Hall and an accomplice forced her into her car. She was sexually assaulted and shot.

A trial judge found that there was “substantial evidence” that Hall “has been mentally retarded his entire life.”

The Atkins decision gave states only general guidance. It said a finding of mental retardation required proof of low IQ scores; a lack of fundamental social and practical skills; and the presence of both conditions before age 18. The court said IQ scores under “approximately 70” typically indicate retardation.

Florida’s law required proof of an IQ of 70 or lower. In 2012, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Hall was eligible to be executed because his IQ had been measured at 71, 73 and 80.

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