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June 01, 2014

ABA welcomes Supreme Court decision in Hall v. Florida

ABA President James R. Silkenat last month welcomed the May 27 Supreme Court decision in Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. ___ 2014, which held as unconstitutional  Florida’s rigid 70-point IQ cutoff for determining whether an individual has intellectual disabilities that prohibit imposition of the death penalty.

Florida law required that defendants show an IQ test score of 70 or below before being permitted to submit additional evidence of intellectual disability. The court, in its 5-4 ruling, found that while professionals have long agreed that IQ tests scores should be read as a range, Florida’s use of the test score as a fixed number created “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disabilities would be executed.”

Silkenat noted in a statement that the court’s 5-4 decision agreed with many of the arguments made by the ABA in an amicus curiae brief submitted in the case. In its brief the ABA, which takes no position on the death penalty per se, asserted that before any defendant claiming intellectual disability is eligible for the death penalty, the defendant should be entitled to establish, pursuant to a constitutionally appropriate test, that both his or her level of intellectual functioning and conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills fall within the definitions used by recognized mental disability organizations. The brief pointed out that many states allow courts to consider the standard margin of error or specific facts about the administration and scoring of IQ tests and that other states recognize that the process requires a multi-faceted analysis.

The court’s opinion reversed a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court rejecting an appeal from death row inmate Freddie Hall, who had been denied by the lower court the ability to present additional evidence of disability because his IQ score was 71, one point above the 70-point threshold set by Florida statute.

“Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. The court had ruled in 2002 in Adkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), that executing intellectually disabled individuals violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment but left to the states the task of determining who was intellectually disabled.

“The ABA has long taken a special interest in the equitable treatment of individuals with mental disabilities, as well as a concern that the death penalty be enforced with appropriate procedural protections and in a fair and unbiased fashion,” Silkenat said, calling the Supreme Court’s decision “a victory for fairness and equal justice.”

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