High court looks at death row inmate mental disability claims

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning heard an appeal from Florida death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall, who’s scored above 70 on most of the IQ tests he’s taken since 1968, but says ample evidence shows he is mentally disabled and therefore cannot be executed because of that, according to an Associated Press article last Friday.

We previewed this case last month.

AP says Hall’s case centers on how authorities determine who is eligible to be put to death, 12 years after justices prohibited the execution of the mentally disabled. [ Hall v. Florida, 12-10882ScotusBlog docket ]

As long ago as the 1950s, Hall was considered "mentally retarded" — then the commonly accepted term for mental disability — according to school records submitted to the Supreme Court, and a judge in an earlier phase of the case concluded Hall "had been mentally retarded his entire life." Psychiatrists and other medical professionals who examined him also said he is mentally disabled.

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the state law regarding executions and mental disability has no wiggle room if an inmate tests above 70. In Florida and some other states, an intelligence test score higher than 70 means an inmate is not mentally disabled, even if other evidence indicates he is, and the Court inPenry v.  Lynaugh  held that executing a mentally retarded person did not automatically violate the U. S.  Constitution… adding that juries must be allowed to consider and give effect to mitigating evidence of mental retardation when considering whether to impose the death penalty.

OhioIndiana, and Kentucky have similar statutes.

ScotusBlog’s Lyle Denniston in his blog post last Fridaychronicled the case & background, writing, “In the beginning twenty-eight years ago, in the Court’s decision in Ford v. Wainwright, capital punishment was ruled out for individuals who were found to be insane at the time the sentence was to be carried out, with states allowed to define that condition.

“In 2002, the Court reached the claim of mental incapacity that is less severe than insanity, and it ruled that this condition (“mental retardation”), too, makes a convicted individual ineligible for execution.  But, in its decision in Atkins v. Virginia, the Court said explicitly that not every person who claims such an impairment would “fall within the range of mentally retarded offenders about whom there is a national consensus” against subjecting them to a death sentence.  “We leave to the states the task of developing ways” to define the protected category, the Court said. (emphasis ours)

“A year after the Atkins decision, the Florida Supreme Court interpreted an existing state law defining mental retardation to mean that the individual’s IQ score had to be seventy or below.  Although Freddie Lee Hall at one time had an IQ test score of sixty, the state court would rule later in his case that a more recent test showed a score of seventy-one, thus making him eligible for the death penalty.  Hall, who is now sixty-nine years old, has long been on death row for a 1978 murder, and has repeatedly attempted to avoid execution by claiming mental incapacity.”

ScotusBlog this morning adds additional coverage coming  fromNPR’s Nina Totenberg and Jess Bravin of The Wall Street Journal, while in his column for The Atlantic Andrew Cohen argues that, “[i]f the Supreme Court meant what it said in Atkins [v. Virginia], the justices must loudly declare that the execution of the mentally retarded in America will not be tolerated, either as a nod to states’ rights or for any other hoary justification.”