WASHINGTON (CN) - By focusing exclusively on a defendant's IQ score, Florida "creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed," the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
"Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the divided court. "Courts must recognize, as does the medical community, that the IQ test is imprecise."
The explosive finding comes in the case of Freddie Lee Hall, who has been in prison since his 1981 conviction on the murder three years earlier of Karol Hurst, a pregnant, 21-year-old newlywed.
He was sentenced and resentenced to death, even after the trial court found him mentally retarded as a mitigating factor.
Those findings by the sentencing court noted that Hall had been raised "under the most horrible family circumstances imaginable."
He had been the 16th of 17 children born to a woman who once tied him in a sack, swung him over a fire and beat him, the court found.
Hall's mother also buried him as a boy in the sand up to his neck to "strengthen his legs;" and she beat him while he was tied naked to a ceiling beam.
In addition to regularly locking Hall in a smokehouse, the mother held a gun on Hall while poking him with sticks, and starved him to prepare for "the famine."
The Florida Supreme Court nevertheless affirmed that the Hall's "serious mental difficulties" did not render him incompetent at the resentencing hearings. That ruling noted Hall "is probably somewhat retarded."
Hall tried again when the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited states from executing the mentally impaired with the 2002 case Atkins v. Virginia
Though that decision deemed such executions cruel and unusual, the court tasked the states with developing a means of enforcing the new restriction.
Hall presented evidence of literacy problems and three IQ tests on which he scored a 73, an 80 and a 71.
Since Florida law defines intellectual disability to require an IQ test score of 70 or less, however, the court determined that Hall could not establish mental retardation.
The divided Florida Supreme Court affirmed denial
in 2012, finding "that there is competent, substantial evidence to support the court's finding that Hall is not mentally retarded."
Justice James Perry complained in dissent that application of Florida's IQ standard here "reaches an absurd result."
"Hall is a poster child for mental retardation claims because the record here clearly demonstrates that Hall is mentally retarded," Perry wrote. "The fact that our statutory standard does not agree only serves to illustrate a flaw in the statute."
Perry quoted previous findings of Hall's IQ of 60, brain damage, chronic psychosis, speech impediment, learning disability, functional illiteracy and the short-term memory of a first grader.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted Hall a writ of certiorari
late last year and found Florida's rule unconstitutional, 5-4, Tuesday.
"No legitimate penological purpose is served by executing a person with intellectual disability," the 22-page opinion states. "To do so contravenes the Eighth Amendment, for to impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being."
Florida's statute does not comport with Atkins
because "the Florida Supreme Court has interpreted the provisions more narrowly," the ruling states.
Pursuant to the mandatory cutoff for those with test scores higher than 70, "sentencing courts cannot consider even substantial and weighty evidence of intellectual disability as measured and made manifest by the defendant's failure or inability to adapt to his social and cultural environment, including medical histories, behavioral records, school tests and reports, and testimony regarding past behavior and family circumstances," Kennedy wrote. "This is so even though the medical community accepts that all of this evidence can be probative of intellectual disability, including for individuals who have an IQ test score above 70.
"Florida's rule disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways," Kennedy continued. "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."
Even the professionals who design, administer and interpret the exams have long said "that IQ test scores should be read not as a single fixed number but as a range," according to the ruling.
Most states comply with Atkins
by taking the "standard error of measurement" or SEM, of an IQ test into account, the court found.
"Every state legislature to have considered the issue after Atkins
- save Virginia's - and whose law has been interpreted by its courts has taken a position contrary to that of Florida," Kennedy emphasized. "Indeed, the Florida Legislature, which passed the relevant legislation prior to Atkins
, might well have believed that its law would not create a fixed cutoff at 70. The staff analysis accompanying the 2001 bill states that it 'does not contain a set IQ level ... Two standard deviations from these tests is approximately a 70 IQ, although it can be extended up to 75.' But the Florida Supreme Court interpreted the law to require a bright-line cutoff at 70, and the court is bound by that interpretation
"The rejection of the strict 70 cutoff in the vast majority of states and the 'consistency in the trend,' toward recognizing the SEM provide strong evidence of consensus that our society does not regard this strict cutoff as proper or humane."
States moreover do not have "complete autonomy" in defining intellectual disability as that would make Atkins "
a nullity," Kennedy added.
"By failing to take into account the SEM and setting a strict cutoff at 70, Florida 'goes against the unanimous professional consensus,'" Kennedy wrote, quoting a brief from the American Physicians Association. "Neither Florida nor its amici
point to a single medical professional who supports this cutoff. The DSM-5 repudiates it: 'IQ test scores are approximations of conceptual functioning but may be insufficient to assess reasoning in real-life situations and mastery of practical tasks.' This statement well captures the court's independent assessment that an individual with an IQ test score 'between 70 and 75 or lower,' may show intellectual disability by presenting additional evidence regarding difficulties in adaptive functioning."
Kennedy concluded with a call for Hall to present evidence of deficits in adaptive functioning over his lifetime.
"The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose," Kennedy wrote. "Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida's law contravenes our nation's commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world. The states are laboratories for experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitution protects."
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the 20-page dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
They said today's holding "adopts a uniform national rule that is both conceptually unsound and likely to result in confusion."
Alito found it "telling" that Hall never based his argument on the consensus among states.
"I see no support for this holding in our traditional approach for identifying our society's evolving standards of decency," the dissent states. "Under any fair analysis of current state laws, the same absence of a consensus that this Court found in Atkins
Alito questioned the majority's math in saying that Florida is one of 10 states that do not requiret taking the SEM into account.
Twelve consider the SEM, and nine have not taken a definitive position on this question, according to the dissent.
"These statistics cannot be regarded as establishing a national consensus against Florida's approach," Alito wrote.
The dissenting judges also declined to credit the views of professional organizations.
"Under our modern Eighth Amendment cases, what counts are our society's standards - which is to say, the standards of the American people - not the standards of professional associations, which at best represent the views of a small professional elite," Alito wrote.
Though Florida does not take into account the SEM, the dissent says it does have another failsafe: allowing the introduction of multiple test scores.
"The court never explains why its criticisms of the uncertainty resulting from the use of a single
IQ score apply when a defendant consistently scores above 70 on multiple
tests," Alito wrote. "Contrary to the court's evident assumption, the well-accepted view is that multiple consistent scores establish a much higher degree of confidence."