The intellectually disabled inmate on death row in Florida will have his fate decided by the Supreme Court
Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in a case titled Hall v. Florida. At issue in this case is Freddie Lee Hall, who was sentenced to death, but also deemed to be mentally retarded (now called intellectually disabled.) Hall has tested over 70 on Intellectual Quotient exams, the widely known cut off point used rigidly in Florida. The Court’s decision will be issued in June, 2014.
The challenge in almost every death penalty case that’s worked its way up to The Supreme Court is the right of each state to determine the mental capacity of a death row inmate versus a federal guideline. Florida’s method of determining who is “intellectually disabled” is among the most restrictive.
In determining eligibility for the death penalty for capital crimes, most states follow clinical guidance from the mental-health profession, which looks to factors beyond raw IQ; such as an individual’s ability to function in social settings or learn from experience.
In 1978, Freddie Lee Hall, who was on a robbery spree with an accomplice, was convicted of the rape and murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 and seven months pregnant when Mr. Hall and the accomplice forced her into her car in a supermarket parking lot. She was found in a wooded area, where she had been beaten, sexually assaulted and shot.
On Monday, the Court seemed skeptical about Florida’s solicitor general Allen Winsor, who said his state’s approach was “a reasonable legislative judgment,” one he said was followed in eight states. But Justice Kennedy said the approach amounted to declining “to follow the standards that are set by the people that designed and administer and interpret the tests.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer suggested that the court could require an expert to explain statistics to the judge or jury deciding whether the inmate had an intellectual disability. “What is so terrible about doing it?” he asked. Mr. Winsor responded “what is so terrible about doing it is you would end up increasing the number of people who would be eligible for a mental retardation finding. Florida has an interest in ensuring that the people who evade execution because of mental retardation are people who are, in fact, mentally retarded.”
In 2002, in a case called Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court barred the execution of mentally retarded defendants, finding the practice violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” However, the decision left the definition of mentally retarded to state law, creating a range of standards that could result in one state executing a defendant whom another state would have found ineligible.
“We didn’t base our decision in Atkins upon a study of what the American Psychiatric Association and other medical associations considered to be mental retardation,” Justice Antonin Scalia said. “We based it on what was the general rule that states had adopted.”
According to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), three criteria must be met for a diagnosis of intellectual disability: An IQ below 70, significant limitations in two or more areas of adaptive behavior (as measured by an adaptive behavior rating scale, i.e. communication, self-help skills, interpersonal skills, and more), and evidence that the limitations became apparent before the age of 18.
It is formally diagnosed by an assessment of IQ and adaptive behavior. A third condition requiring onset in childhood is used to distinguish intellectual disability from dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease or due to traumatic brain injuries. Even Texas, the leader in executions uses the above definition in determining the intellectual disability of a death row inmate. Still, it is not law in Florida.
In the oral arguments Monday, conservative Justice Scalia negated the DSM-IV saying that “it changes” and therefore cannot be relied upon. Scalia used the example that homosexuality used to be called a mental disorder and is now determined not to be.
To most constitutional lawyers there seems little doubt that the Founding Fathers intended to allow for the death penalty in drawing up the US Constitution of 1787. Certain provisions of the Constitution expressly allow for the taking of life. At the same time, other provisions were deliberately phrased in ambiguous ways to suggest that even though certain forms of punishment can be banned (like crucifixions), the basic principle of government executions remained permissible if individual states wished to permit them.
While liberal-leaning states have moved away from the death penalty, Southern states have taken steps to continue executions, even switching protocols because European nations have refused to permit the export of drugs to the U.S. typically used for lethal injections.
Texas conducted almost half of the 1,118 executions since capital punishment was reintroduced following a 1976 Supreme Court ruling, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Oklahoma and Virginia each executed 110 inmates, with Florida in fourth place at 84.