WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday it would consider taking another step toward limiting the use of the death penalty, this time by trying to clarify the legal standard for who is ineligible for the ultimate punishment because of mental disability.
At issue is whether states such as Florida may disqualify anyone who scores above 70 on an IQ test. A score below 70 generally indicates mental disability.
The justices agreed to hear the case of Freddie Hall, a Florida death row inmate who killed two people in 1978, but who was described as mentally disabled when he was a child and was deemed to be mentally retarded by the judge who sentenced him to die.
Three years ago, Florida prosecutors said Hall had scored a 71 on a Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale test and therefore could be executed for his crimes. At other times he scored 73 and 80.
His case figures to be the most important death penalty dispute decided during this court term. During the last decade, the court has limited the use of the death penalty by excluding those who were younger than 18 at the time of the crime or who suffered from a significant mental disability.
But until now, the court has not intervened to clarify who qualifies for an exemption based on a mental disability. "It's been 11 years, and this issue is still not settled," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
He was referring to a 2002 case, Atkins vs. Virginia, in which the court held that it was cruel and unusual punishment to impose a death sentence on a murderer who had a mental disability. While these defendants can be sentenced to life in prison, they are not among the small percentage of murderers who deserve to die, said Justice John Paul Stevens.
His opinion spoke for a 6-3 majority, and it left states some leeway to decide who should be deemed mentally disabled. One key question is whether the facts of the crime should figure in the decision.
Hall was convicted, along with another man, of abducting a 21-year old woman from a grocery store parking lot in Leesburg, Fla. She was taken to a wooded area, where she was raped and killed.
The trial judge acknowledged the evidence suggesting Hall had a mental disability, but he said the facts of his crime outweighed it.
"Nothing of which the experts testified could explain how a psychotic, mentally retarded, brain-damaged, learning-disabled, speech-impaired person would formulate a plan whereby a car was stolen and a convenience store was robbed," the judge said.
After the Supreme Court's ruling in 2002, lawyers for Hall appealed and argued he should be spared from execution because of his mental disability.
They cited evidence he suffers from organic brain damage, has a speech impediment and was functionally illiterate.
Moreover, Hall was "raised under the most horrible family circumstances imaginable," as the trial judge had said. "The 16th of 17 children, Hall was tortured by his mother and abused by neighbors. … Relatives testified that Hall's mother tied him in a 'croaker' sack [burlap bag], swung it over a fire and beat him."
But last year, a divided Florida Supreme Court rejected his appeal and reaffirmed his death sentence. The majority opinion said Hall had to show he has "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning," and his IQ score of 71 defeated that claim. The two dissenting justices objected to the use of an IQ cut-off score.
In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Hall's lawyer argued that Hall was the rare defendant who "became un-retarded" after his original sentence.
In recent months, the high court has turned away several appeals from death row inmates who raised an issue of mental disability. But on Monday, the court said it had voted to hear the case of Hall vs. Florida during the winter.
Cornell University law professor John Blume, an expert on capital punishment, said he was pleased the court would clarify the law. "This appears to be an egregious case, someone who was mentally retarded for his entire life," he said. "Florida is among a handful of states that rely on a single cut-off score."
But Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, said he hoped the court did not try to "micromanage" how states determined who was mentally disabled.
"This is a continuum, and there is no one definition that works for cases close to the line," he said. "I think the court should allow the states some latitude in defining a mental disability."