WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to clarify the legal standard for intellectual disability in the case of a Florida death row inmate who is illiterate and was once judged to have severe impairments.
The justices in 2002 struck down imposing the death penalty for murderers who are “mentally retarded,” ruling this was cruel and unusual punishment. However, the court did not set a clear standard for what is now commonly known as intellectual disability and left the states some leeway in the matter.
Now, the court will decide whether states may rely entirely on a single IQ test.
Florida, like nine other states, has used a cutoff score of 70 on the test to measure for intellectual disability. Those who score 70 or above cannot be deemed to have intellectual disabilities, even if psychologists testify the inmate does. Those below that score still may go to prison but cannot be executed.
Freddie Hall, the Florida inmate, was sentenced to die for the kidnap and murder of a woman he abducted from a grocery store in 1978 despite having organic brain damage and other disabilities. Though the judge in the case agreed Hall had intellectual disability, he imposed a death sentence anyway, citing the severity of his crime and the planning that went into it.
After the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2002 outlawing the death penalty for those with intellectual disability, Hall sought to be removed from death row. But a psychologist who tested him said Hall scored a 71 on the Weschler Adult Intelligence Test. As a result, under a new Florida law, he could no longer qualify having intellectual disability.
A divided Florida Supreme Court upheld his death sentence last year, but two dissenting justices objected to the use of a single cutoff score.
In appealing his case to the Supreme Court, a lawyer for Hall said his case illustrates the confusion in the law, because the defendant had become “unretarded” between the time of his original sentencing and now. He said the justices should intervene now to prevent the “prospect of executing a clearly mentally retarded human being.”
The court said it would hear the case of Hall vs. Florida during the winter and issue a decision by June.
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