Surprise! SCOTUS Protects the Intellectually Disabled from Death Penalty

death penalty and intellectually disabled

On Tuesday, The Supreme Court condemned as unconstitutional a Florida law that weakened protections against sentencing intellectually disabled people to death. The law sought to  limiting evidence of intellectual disability to a fixed number on an IQ test.

The Court’s ruling in Hall v. Florida was delivered by Justice Kennedy.  Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagen joined in the ruling that struck down a law which attempted to “draw bright lines on IQ test results.

Florida’s Supreme Court interpreted the law in question to mean that any death row inmate with an IQ above 70 is not intellectually disabled and “cannot present evidence that he or she should not be executed.”

That rigid and arbitrary standard was the central issue in this case because it precludes sentencing courts from considering “even substantial and weighty evidence of intellectual disability as measured and made manifest by the defendant’s failure or inability to adapt to his social and cultural environment, including medical histories, behavioral records, school tests and reports and testimony regarding past behavior and family circumstances.”

In short, the Florida court’s ruling made a snap shot assessment more important than formal assessments over the course of an inmate’s life time.   Moreover, the snap shot assessment was flawed and imprecise.

First, as the SCOTUS ruling pointed out, professionals who design, administer and interpret IQ tests have, for several years, agreed that the results should be read as a range, not as a fixed number.  This is because IQ tests have a “standard error of measurement” aka SEM, which are a statistical reality.  They really are an imprecise measure of intellectual ability or disability.

This ruling is an important constitutional and human rights victory against efforts to broaden eligibility for the death penalty to include people who are intellectually disabled.

In this case, Hall had substantial and unchallenged evidence beginning in childhood that he is intellectually disabled – proving the inherent flaw in defining intellectual disabilities based on an arbitrary number.

As the court noted, there are important reasons that people with intellectual disabilities should not be subjected to the death penalty.  First of all, people with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be wrongfully convicted.   They are unable or have a limited ability to aid in their own defense.  Also, people with intellectual disabilities are more prone to offer false confessions and tend to be poor witnesses.

The Florida Supreme Court’s rigid criteria for designation of intellectual disability means an increased probability of wrongful convictions and with it, wrongful executions.

Even if those weren’t issues, as the court notes:

“The diminished capacity of the intellectually disabled lessens moral culpability and hence the retributive value of the punishment.”

As it stands, the United States has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest rates of killing its own citizens in the world.  This is particularly disturbing considering that, according to studies, 4% of people sentenced to death in the United States are innocent.

The last thing we need is to expand “eligibility” for the death penalty to include intellectually disable people based on a precise and fixed score on an imprecise test.

Image: Big Story

4 Replies to “Surprise! SCOTUS Protects the Intellectually Disabled from Death Penalty”

  1. I am quite sure they will try to find a way around the ruling. Their pro-life blood lust has to satisfied.

  2. I was glad to hear about this ruling. I’ve taught teens who are intellectually disabled. They are unable to understand many of the things that others can understand. I think it should be a crime to execute any ID person. A couple weeks ago, iirc, a state was ready to execute an ID man had a member of the SC not stopped it. Never mind that those who didn’t vote to stop executing the ID are GOPTP members who pretend that they’re pro-life. If the case had involved determining whether a corporation has the rights of a human being, all those who voted no on Hall v. Florida would have been clamoring to vote yes on it.

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