Should a death row inmate’s life hinge on an IQ test?

The Supreme Court ruled in the 2002 Atkins vs. Virginia case that executing the intellectually disabled violates the 8th Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual" punishment. But the court left it up to the states to define what constitutes intellectual disability. The Justices will hear the case of Florida death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall on Monday.
(Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images)

On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about a Florida man, Freddie Lee Hall, who faces execution for a 1978 murder. Hall is intellectually incapable of understanding the arguments, but the state of Florida says that it has the right to execute him nevertheless, in a case that spotlights both the barbarity and the absurdity of the death penalty.

This page has a long history of opposing capital punishment on the grounds of morality, overwhelming evidence of its misapplication and public expense, among other things. But even if we did see sense in the practice, we would see none in applying the death penalty here, despite the brutality of the crime. Hall and a partner were convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering Karol Hurst, who was 21 and pregnant; later that day, they allegedly shot and killed a deputy sheriff during a confrontation. This case centers on the Hurst murder.

Hall has a severely diminished mental capacity as measured by IQ tests and the observations of trained clinicians. The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Atkins vs. Virginia that executing the intellectually disabled violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment. But the court left it up to the states to define what constitutes intellectual disability.


Florida, along with several other states, sets its threshold at an IQ test score of 70, though the professional consensus suggests a range of 70 to 75. Hall’s score? He was measured at 71 in one test, 72 in another. Yet those tests also have a “standard error of measurement,” which means Hall could actually be below Florida’s threshold of 70.

Florida says it’s satisfied with its “bright line” threshold and wants to put Hall to death despite assertions that he was incapable of cooperating in his own defense, and despite the fact that the professional determination of intellectual disability is based only in part on IQ. According to the American Assn. on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities — and cited by Hall’s lawyers — it is “characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior.” An IQ test can measure intellectual functioning, but it takes trained professionals to determine the extent of a person’s adaptive behavior. In other words, a test score alone doesn’t define mental capacity.

Yet Florida says it does. The legal argument before the court is whether Florida can use its rigid statistical cutoff to determine who is ineligible for the death penalty. So it will be a court of the absurd as the justices hear arguments over whether a single IQ test point and a statistical margin of error should determine if someone lives or dies for a criminal act.