Supreme Court to grapple with mental disability and the death penalty

The sun shines behind a statue outside of the U.S. Supreme Court building.
The sun shines behind a statue outside of the U.S. Supreme Court building.
(Julia Schmalz / Bloomberg)

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed Monday to clarify the legal standard for mental disability in the case of a Florida death row inmate who is illiterate and was once judged to be severely mentally disabled.

The justices in 2002 struck down imposing the death penalty for murderers who are mentally disabled, ruling this was cruel and unusual punishment. However, the court did not set a clear standard for mental 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 mental disability. Those who score 70 or above cannot be deemed mentally disabled, even if psychologists testify the inmate has severe mental disabilities. 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 mental disabilities. Though the judge in the case agreed Hall was mentally disabled, 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 the mentally disabled, 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 as mentally disabled.

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 at 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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