Opinion: The Supreme Court made the right call in Florida death penalty case

Sep 30, 2008 -- llustration by Anthony Russo / For The Times. To run on commentary page 10/02/2008 with an anti-death penalty piece by Jeanne Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin.
(Anthony Russo / For the Times)

A Supreme Court decision earlier Tuesday added some wiggle room to the definition of who is eligible for the death penalty, which is a good thing. As long as we’re stuck with this barbaric practice, we should at least make certain that we don’t kill criminals who lack the intellectual capacity to understand their crimes. At the same time, the decision introduces a hint of humanity to an inherently inhumane state action.

The case is Hall vs. Florida, which centers on an intellectually disabled man convicted of two murders in 1978. And before the comments section fills with outrage from the vengeful, yes, Freddie Lee Hall committed heinous crimes and should be locked away until he dies of natural causes. The state of Florida, though, wanted to kill him, despite evidence that Hall was mentally disabled. The legal fight was over that determination.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins vs. Virginia that the intellectually disabled – the “mentally retarded” in the language of the time – were ineligible for the death penalty. It set the measurement threshold at a score of “approximately 70” on an IQ test. The problem is, most professionals view an IQ test as just part of the diagnostic material to determine intellectual disability. Also, states like Florida set 70 as a hard-line threshold. One of Hall’s tests came in at 71, so the state ruled him eligible.


But experts say there is a test margin of error of as much as five points, which meant that a score of 75 or less should be considered evidence of intellectual disability (in an unrelated case in Texas, a federal appeals court recently issued a last-minute stay over evidence that Texas officials failed to turn over evidence that killer Robert James Campbell was intellectually disabled). So the court ruled in a 5-4 decision that Florida’s rules for determining intellectual capacity were unconstitutional, and ordered that Hall be able to make a broader case that he is ineligible for the death penalty (roughly reflecting the Times’ editorial position on the issue).

From the opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy:

“Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of 70 on an IQ test. Florida is one of just a few States to have this rigid rule. Florida’s rule misconstrues the Court’s in Atkins that intellectually disability is characterized by an IQ of ‘approximately 70.’ Florida’s rule is in direct opposition to the views of those who design, administer, and interpret the IQ test. By failing to take into account the standard error of measurement, Florida’s law not only contradicts the test’s own design but also bars an essential part of a sentencing court’s inquiry into adaptive functioning. Freddie Lee Hall may or may not be intellectually disabled, but the law requires that he have the opportunity to present evidence of his intellectual disability, including deficits in adaptive functioning over his lifetime.

“The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose. 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.”

Now if we could only get the court to recognize that state executions also deny that basic dignity.