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Supreme Court overturns Florida’s rigid IQ cutoff for death penalty eligibility

May 27, 2014 at 6:23 PM EDT
The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to overturn a Florida rule that used an IQ score of 70 as the determining factor in deeming individuals mentally fit for execution. For a closer look at the decision, Judy Woodruff talks to Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Supreme Court today declared a Florida rule used to determine if a person is mentally fit for execution to be unconstitutional.

The court has previously ruled that states cannot execute individuals deemed to have an intellectual disability. Florida had been using an I.Q. score of 70 as its determining factor. But the justices, in a 5-to-4 decision, said that was too rigid.

For more on the decision, we turn, as always, to Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal.”

Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: Hi, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Great to have you back.

MARCIA COYLE: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Marcia, give us — just remind us of the background of this case. What was it about?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, Freddie Lee Hall had been convicted of murder, a murder that took place in 1978. He and another man had abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered a woman who was seven months pregnant in order to steal her car in connection with a robbery. They also later killed — shot and killed a police officer.

He’s really been on death row since I think about 1982. He brought the challenge to the Supreme Court today, that the court decided today, in which he said that Florida’s rigid 70 I.Q. score cutoff violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He had scored just above that, I guess, 71.

MARCIA COYLE: He did. He scored a 71, right. And Florida’s law is 70 or less.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the justices, 5-4 majority, ruled that it’s unconstitutional to have such a specific cutoff.

MARCIA COYLE: Exactly.

Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority. And he said several things. First of all, he said the medical and scientific communities generally look at the I.Q. score as being imprecise. And in order to account for that imprecision, they use something like — well, what is known as the standard error of measurement, which produces a range, an I.Q. range.

In Mr. Hall’s case, he would have fallen within the range, somewhere from 66 to 76. Florida didn’t consider the standard error of measurement. It was — it was a rigid cutoff. He also said that a majority — a substantial majority of the states now use or consider the standard error of measurement. Florida doesn’t.

And, finally, he said that every state legislature since the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 barring execution of the intellectually disabled, that every state legislature that has considered this issue has acted in a way contrary to Florida.

Put that together, the standard error of measurement, that a substantial number of states use that, that the number of states that are opposite to Florida shows, he says, strong proof that there is an evolving standard of the — of society, a national consensus that a rigid cutoff is inhumane.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then the dissenters, or the opinion written by Justice Alito, wrote, there is no — they didn’t think that there is a consensus.

MARCIA COYLE: Right. Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They disagreed.

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Alito questioned Justice Kennedy’s statistics on what the states are doing.

He said there was no consensus back in 2002, there is no consensus now that would justify invalidating Florida’s rule. He also said that the court was basing its decision — decision primary on the — primarily on the standards of a small group of professional, elite organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And psychological — so, Marcia, you were telling me this is going to have both immediate and longer-term repercussions.

MARCIA COYLE: Right.

The immediate impact is going to be for Mr. Hall and others in approximately nine states that have either rigid cutoffs or laws that could be interpreted to be — have rigid I.Q. cutoffs. They will get a chance to show additional evidence that they are intellectually disabled.

But it also, I think, signals, Judy, that even though — this was really the first time since 2002 that the court delved deeply into intellectual disability and the death penalty, and it sends a message, I think, to the states that sentencing courts have to be open to additional evidence in order to make a very difficult decision here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it’s more than just Florida. It’s a number of other states that are going to be paying close attention to this.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes, I agree. Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcia Coyle, thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Judy.