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U.S. high court to examine IQ threshold for death penalty

By David Ingram

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday it would hear a death row appeal from a Florida man ruled mentally disabled in 1992 but later found competent to be executed after he scored 71 on an IQ test, the minimum under state law.

In a brief order, the court said it would consider whether Florida used a lawful process to determine that convicted murderer Freddie Lee Hall, awaiting execution pending appeals, was not mentally disabled after all.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that states could not execute someone who was mentally disabled because doing so violated the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but the court left it to states to define who was disabled.

Hall's case gives the court the opportunity to revisit the matter and possibly order some U.S. states to change how they determine who is eligible for the death penalty.

"I suspect their ruling will affect not just Florida but the other states as well," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit in Washington that compiles execution data.

Thirty-two of the 50 U.S. states allow the death penalty, but only a handful of states vary from the definition of mental disability used by psychiatrists and others, Dieter said. Those states include Florida, Georgia and Texas.

The American Psychiatric Association this year dropped the term "mental retardation" in favor of "intellectual disability," which it says should be assessed not only with standardized tests but with clinical evaluations of everyday tasks such as language ability, social judgment and personal care.

The case puts yet another major U.S. social issue back in front of the Supreme Court's nine justices, who in the past year have also taken up questions involving same-sex marriage, racial preferences and abortion.

Human rights activists worldwide decry the death penalty.

The court left room in 2002 to return to the topic of mental disability and the death penalty. Justice John Paul Stevens' opinion for a 6-3 majority referenced clinical definitions of mental disability but did not explicitly adopt them as the court's own.

Justice Antonin Scalia, a senior conservative member of the court, wrote in dissent that the question was best left to jurors in part because "the symptoms of this condition can readily be feigned."

'BRIGHT LINE' DISPUTE

At the center of the new case is Hall, age 68 and convicted in the 1978 shooting deaths of a sheriff's deputy and a woman who was seven months pregnant.

In 1992, the first time state courts considered his competence, they found Hall to be mentally disabled, according to a brief filed by Hall's lawyer. But after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 ruling, Hall was tested again and was found competent with the IQ score of 71.

IQ is measured on a scale from 45 to 155 on a test known as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. The average is 100, while "1 to 3 percent of the population has an IQ between 70 and 75 or lower," the Supreme Court said in the 2002 ruling.

Under Florida law, there is a three-part test for determining whether people are mentally disabled. They must have subaverage intellectual functioning and difficulty living independently, and they must show it before age 18.

Hall's lawyer said Florida's courts improperly are using a "bright line" standard for determining subaverage intellectual functioning: those with IQ scores of 70 or below may be mentally disabled, while those with scores of 71 or above may not be.

The inventors of the test that Hall took did not intend for it to give a bright-line answer, only a range of possible scores, and Hall's range would be 67 to 75, the lawyer said.

In urging the Supreme Court to stay out of the case, Florida's attorney general stressed that the state has a three-part test, not a single test based on IQ alone. It also said that Hall had scored as high as 80 on one test, and that regardless the question was best left for states to answer.

The court's 2002 ruling "expressly left the task of defining retardation to the states," the state said.

Oral arguments and a ruling are expected before the end of June 2014.

The case is Hall v. Florida, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-10882.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Howard Goller and Eric Beech)

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