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Court says rule too rigid for execution exemption over mental ability

 | 
Washington

The Supreme Court on Tuesday tossed out Florida's standard for determining when someone's intelligence level renders them exempt from execution.

In a 5-4 decision, the court followed up on a 12-year-old ruling that said it is unconstitutional to execute people who have mental disabilities. The new ruling said states must use more than an IQ test to determine whether inmates whose scores fall between 70 and 75 should be disqualified from capital punishment because of mental disability.

The case revolved around whether Freddie Lee Hall, 68, meets the standard to be executed. Hall was convicted of the 1978 murder of a pregnant woman. In numerous IQ tests administered between 1968 and 2008, Hall's scores ranged between 60 and 80. Under the Florida standard, he was deemed eligible for execution because the state used a score of 71 for him, when the bottom-line number under the policy was 70.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said Florida and the half-dozen or so other states that have a similar rigid standard are obliged to consider other measures of mental disability when someone's score falls within the range of 70-75.

"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," Kennedy said.

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Mental health professionals widely accept a score of 70 as evidence of mental disability, but some people who score as high as 75 would fit the definition because of the margin of error in the test.

The Florida Supreme Court had ruled that the state standard was adequate and that Hall could be executed because of his score of 71.

Kennedy's ruling said in order to determine if Florida's cutoff rule is valid, "it is proper to consider the psychiatric and professional studies that elaborate on the purpose and meaning of IQ scores." He said that in turn leads to better understanding of state policies and the holdings of various courts.

In the 2002 ruling, Kennedy noted, the court cited the three criteria used by the medical community to establish intellectual disability: "significantly sub-average intellectual functioning; deficits in adaptive functioning (the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances), and onset of these deficits during the developmental period."

He said only first two criteria were at issue in Hall's case. And while the Florida statute might appear to be consistent with the views of the medical community, Kennedy said the state Supreme Court had interpreted the provisions so narrowly that someone with a score above 70 qualified for the death penalty and was barred from presenting evidence to the contrary.

Kennedy said Florida's rule "disregards established medical practice," by taking an IQ score "as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant's intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence."

Joining Kennedy in his ruling were Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Justice Samuel Alito wrote in dissent, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

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