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I.Q. Cutoff Ruling May Spare Some Inmates on Death Row
May 29, 2014
Source: New York Times
A Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday throwing out Floridas strict I.Q. cutoff in death penalty cases could increase the number of inmates exempt from execution because they are deemed mentally disabled, legal experts said Wednesday.
The decision, rejecting state policies that make it possible to sentence prisoners to death even if their I.Q. scores fall one point above a numerical cutoff, will require nine states to come up with new standards for determining which inmates claiming mental disabilities can be sentenced to death.
But, death penalty experts said, only a small number of death row prisoners would qualify for new hearings. An estimated 10 to 20 inmates could be eligible because an inflexible I.Q. test cutoff — typically 70 — was used to decide whether they were too intellectually disabled to be executed, said John H. Blume, a law professor and death penalty expert at Cornell University. The death row inmates in this category would generally have I.Q.s of 71 to 75. Those inmates should now be able to ask for a new hearing that would take into consideration other evidence and a broader range of I.Q. tests.
By Justice Anthony M. Kennedys count, there are nine states that, either by law or by court decision, were free to use similar I.Q. cutoffs to sentence someone. The nine are Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington. Other justices, based on differing readings of the states laws, disagreed with that count.
These nine will now have to fall in line with the vast majority of states that use a more flexible standard to measure intelligence, taking into account that it is not an exact science and that evidence about a persons life and behavior should also be weighed as a factor. An I.Q. score of 70 to 75 can denote an intellectual disability because of the tests margin of error.
“There are only a handful of states like Florida that developed this nonscientific cutoff,” Mr. Blume said. “Most states did this right.”
On Wednesday, Governor Rick Scott of Florida said the state would abide by the ruling. “Capital punishment is a solemn duty that Governor Scott takes very seriously,” said John Tupps, a spokesman for Mr. Scott.
In the case the Supreme Court ruled on, Freddie L. Hall, now 68, who was convicted of murdering a pregnant 21-year-old woman in 1978, had taken nine I.Q. tests from 1968 to 2008. His most recent scores hovered between 69 and 74 but, in general, he had scored as high as 80 and as low as 60. One judge who handled part of Mr. Halls case had determined he had been “mentally retarded” his whole life, a view shared by medical professionals and psychiatrists who examined Mr. Hall.
But only some of Mr. Halls I.Q. tests were admissible, the lowest one being a score of 71. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the states law had established 70 as the cutoff, so Mr. Hall was not deemed mentally disabled. His lawyers argued that the cutoff was arbitrary and rigid and that the full record of Mr. Halls life needed to be taken into account.
Psychiatrists and legal experts said that I.Q. scores could vary depending on circumstances and on the effort of the test taker. “Hall sounds the death knell for such junk science,” said Robert C. Owen, a clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law who is one of the lawyers representing a death row inmate in Texas, Robert James Campbell, whose case could be affected by the ruling.
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