The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the execution of an intellectually disabled man Tuesday, in perhaps the most significant death penalty ruling in a decade. The ruling closes a loophole in the high court’s 2012 ruling that has allowed many states — including Florida in this case — to continue putting intellectually disabled inmates to death even though the Supreme Court banned the practice.
“The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for a five-justice majority. “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.”
The United States does not ban capital punishment outright, although an increasing number of states do. But for certain categories of people, the punishment has been deemed cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that “death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal,” reasoning that their disability “places them at special risk of wrongful execution.” Executing an intellectually disabled inmate also does not serve the typical goals of punishment. It is inherently not rehabilitative. And it is particularly unlikely to deter crimes or serve as a meaningful punishment to those criminals who are incapable of understanding the nature of their acts.
Despite this ban, states including Texas, Georgia, and Florida have gone forward with executions of those deemed intellectually disabled by a wide range of experts, by establishing their own definitions of intellectual disability that don’t comport with those of clinicians and experts. Georgia, for example, has set a burden of proof so high — beyond a reasonable doubt — that even evidently disabled defendants are unable to meet it. In Florida, the court set a bright-line rule that an individual must have an IQ score of 70 or below in order to be considered mentally disabled.
The petitioner in this case, Freddie Lee Hall, scored a 71 on one test that was admitted in court (on other tests he scored as low as 60). Multiple clinicians deemed Hall intellectual disabled. In school records, teachers repeatedly identified him as “significantly retarded” or “mentally retarded.” When Hall tried to live by himself, he could not cook for himself or bathe for himself. What’s more, a score of 71 is within the five-point margin of error — variable depending on the day an individual took the test and other environmental factors.
Nonetheless, the Florida Supreme Court deemed the score of 71 definitive, and declined to even consider other evidence of his intellectual disability. The Florida Supreme Court upheld a jury’s decision to sentence Hall to death on this basis. But the five-justice majority held that this score alone could not be the basis for putting Hall to death.
“This Court agrees with the medical experts that when a defendant’s IQ test score falls within the test’s acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits,” Kennedy wrote. “It is not sound to view a single factor as dispositive of a conjunctive and interrelated assessment.”
He later added, “This rigid rule, the Court now holds, creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional.”
In coming to this conclusion, the court notes that the overwhelming majority of states — 41 by their count — have rejected this IQ score threshold, either by specific laws or court rulings, or by banning the death penalty in its entirety. In interpreting the Eighth Amendment’s definition of what is “unusual,” the court considers practices that are falling out of favor.
The court also notes the “unanimous professional consensus” against the IQ score cut-off. “Neither Florida nor its amici point to a single medical professional who supports this cutoff,” Kennedy points out.
The ruling means that Florida’s standard for assessing intellectual disability is invalidated, and Hall will get a new sentencing hearing. It makes a strong statement against bright-line IQ rules that do not consider a variety of factors. But Kennedy makes no reference to the broader move by some states to undermine the Supreme Court’s 2002 ban on executing the intellectually disabled through a variety of state standards. Whether this ruling will be used to invalidate Georgia’s onerous burden of proof, for example, remains to be seen.
The majority does reiterate a commitment to avoiding cruel and unusual punishment in a society with evolving notions of humanity. This general sentiment may come into play as courts continue to grapple with increasingly controversial methods of imposing executions, including lethal injections from secret, unverified sources that were implicated in one recent botched execution, and the revival of practices such as the gas chamber and electric chair.
“The Eighth Amendment’s protection of dignity reflects the Nation we have been, the Nation we are, and the Nation we aspire to be,” Kennedy wrote. “This is to affirm that the Nation’s constant, unyielding purpose must be to transmit the Constitution so that its precepts and guarantees retain their meaning and force.”