The US Supreme Court announced Monday that it will consider a challenge from a Florida man who was ruled mentally disabled in 1992 but was later found competent enough to be executed after scoring the state minimum on an IQ test.
The high court will test whether Florida used a lawful process to
determine if convicted murderer Freddie Lee Hall, who is awaiting
execution pending the appeals process, was in fact not mentally
The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executing the mentally disabled was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the US Constitution.
In the opinion for the 6-3 majority, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote of clinical definitions of mental disability but did not adopt any official standards. In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said it was best left to jurors to determine eligibility because "the symptoms of this condition can readily be feigned."
Thus, states are allowed to define who is considered mentally disabled.
"I suspect their ruling will affect not just Florida but the other states as well," Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that collects and analyzes execution data, told Reuters.
Only a few of the 32 US states that have the death penalty diverge from the medical definition of mental disability - Florida, Georgia and Texas.
Hall’s case may open these states to adjustments on who is eligible to be put to death.
The American Psychiatric Association says “intellectual disability,” their preferred term after dropping “mental retardation” in 2012, should be assessed by a variety of factors - such as lingual ability, social judgment, and personal care - not just with standardized tests.
Hall, 68, was convicted for the 1978 shooting deaths of a sheriff’s deputy and a woman who was seven months pregnant.
He was found to be mentally disabled in 1992, the first time state courts tested his competence. He was tested again after the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling, when he scored 71 on an IQ exam - the lowest to not be considered mentally disabled. The average score is 100, as "1 to 3 percent of the population has an IQ between 70 and 75 or lower," the Supreme Court said in 2002.
Florida has a three-part test for assessing mental capabilities. Sub-average intellectual capacity and difficulty living independently must be shown before the age of 18.
Hall’s lawyer says the state courts are improperly using a “bright line” standard for proving low mental capabilities. The test Hall took did not intend to produce a clear IQ-level answer, the inventors say, but rather a range of possible scores. Hall’s range would be between 67 and 75, his lawyer said.
In urging the Supreme Court to refuse the case, Florida’s attorney general stressed that the state has a three-part test it applies, that Hall has scored above the state’s threshold, and that states are best left to determine a question such as this.
The Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling "expressly left the task of defining retardation to the states," the state asserted.