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Supreme Court Strikes Strict IQ Cutoff for Death Penalty

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Florida law which allowed executions for those with IQ above 70 was unconstitutional.

Freddie Lee Hall, 68, was set to be executed in Florida, despite having a 71 IQ. The High Court determined in a 5-4 decision that Florida's law held too fast to 70 IQ as a cutoff and must consider the imprecision of the test, reports USA Today.

How did the Court come to this split IQ decision?

Too Close for Comfort

More than a decade ago, the High Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that it was unconstitutional to execute those with intellectual disabilities. The man in Atkins had trouble getting the state of Virginia to accept evidence of his low IQ as reason for commuting his sentence to life in prison.

Although Atkins didn't focus on any specific number with regard to IQ and mental retardation, many states followed the guidance of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) that intellectual disability is associated with "an IQ score of about 70 or below."

What separates Florida's interpretation of its death penalty laws from the APA's guidance is that Florida had foreclosed any claim of intellectual disability for petitioners with an IQ above 70. In its decision in Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court affirmed that IQ was one of many factors in evaluating intellectual disability, not a threshold for considering it.

The fact that Hall had a 71 IQ (although this was only one of many test results) should not have barred him from proving to the state that he was intellectually disabled.

IQs Are a Range

The Hall Court noted that for years, testing professionals have considered the result of an IQ test as a range, not as a fixed point. Even the APA guidance cited in Atkins classifies a score of 50 to 55, to approximately 70, as "mild" mental retardation.

Other federal courts have come to the same result: IQ tests are persuasive in determining intellectual capacity or function, but they are not the final word. The key is allowing a death row petitioner the opportunity to prove his or her case for intellectual disability, which may include evidence of low IQ scores. Part of that evidentiary showing may be an argument about the precision of IQ tests in general.

Hall will now have an opportunity to present that evidence.

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