The Supreme Court heard arguments in Hall v. Florida, a controversial case that once again brought the issue of capital punishment to the high court’s attention, on March 3. Freddie Lee Hall was tried and convicted of kidnap, rape and murder in 1978, and subsequently sentenced to death. Hall’s attorney’s filed an appeal, citing his multiple diagnoses of mental disability and long history of low IQ test scores. Over a decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that convicted criminals who are deemed mentally retarded cannot be subject to capital punishment. It was an important step forward in the country’s slow progression toward cleaning up the criminal justice system, but the Supreme Court made a major mistake — giving free rein to states in governing the method by which an inmate is determined mentally retarded.
Prior to 2002, execution of mentally disabled individuals was legal under Penry v. Lynaugh, which held that capital punishment of those suffering from mental disabilities did not violate the Eighth Amendment. However, Atkins overturned the prior ruling, noting that the Eighth Amendment was subject to change in accordance with evolving standards of decency in society. When deciding Hall’s fate, the justices should ask themselves if defining mental disability by IQ is in accordance with the evolving standards of decency in society.
Hall’s measured IQ has fallen between 65-75 over his lifetime, overlapping Florida’s hard cutoff line of 70 for mental disability. However, IQs in the 70-84 range have been labeled as borderline retarded in some versions of the test. More importantly, no justice system should rely entirely on a test that fails to recognize the scientific margin of error in its results. Hall has other markers of a mental handicap: his former teachers have described him as mentally disabled, and his speech is not always intelligible. These factors need to be taken into account when deciding a person’s mental state in a fair trial. Furthermore, IQ tests generally have a margin of error of five points, which means that a result as high as 74 could technically qualify Hall as mentally disabled in Florida.
Hall’s crime is one that deserves punishment, but not execution. His condition should not excuse him from being held responsible for his actions, but a death sentence cannot be carried out without violating the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Hall v. Florida represents an opportunity for the Supreme Court to improve its decision in Atkins. When a law appears to be arbitrary in its nature, it most likely is. In Florida’s case, a multipronged approach is required, taking into account the standard errors of measurement within IQ tests. By deciding to hear the case, the justices will have to confront whether a constitutional definition of ineligibility for the death sentence is necessary. For the sake of many on death row, they must.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, March 4 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]