The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down Florida’s IQ parameters for death penalty inmates hardly solves the problem nationwide of states executing intellectually challenged prisoners.
Some death penalty experts say states such as Texas and Georgia are still trying to get around the Supreme Court’s standard set in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia when it barred the execution of the “mentally retarded.”
Others say the ruling represents a narrowing of the death penalty by the high court and reflects growing public distaste for capital punishment.
Austin Sarat, a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said America is moving again—”two steps forward, one step back”—toward rejecting capital punishment.
“It’s not going to be fast, and it’s not going to be uniform,” he said. “But the death of the death penalty is on the horizon.”
Consider Tuesday’s 5-4 decision a step in that direction.
Divided along ideological lines, the justices ruled Florida’s strict numerical IQ cutoff was unconstitutional, violating death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall’s Eighth Amendment rights prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.
As is often the case on this issue, moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for the divided court, saying, “Florida’s law contravenes our nation’s commitment to dignity and to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world.”
Kennedy also cast the deciding vote in 2005 striking down the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles.
Last week’s ruling affects Florida, Alabama, Virginia and other states. Florida at 413 is second only to California in its death row population.
Sarat said it’s important to put the Supreme Court decision in context in the wake of the botched lethal injection execution in Oklahoma of Clayton Lockett. The prisoner convulsed on the gurney before dying of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began.
Sarat has written two books on the death penalty. The latest is “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.”
Capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, four years after the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional.
While executions in America historically tracked technological advances, some states are going backward, Sarat said. Tennessee again has restored death in the electric chair. Utah and Wyoming are considering bringing back firing squads.
He said public distaste for these modes of execution will hasten the death penalty’s demise.
Executions have plummeted annually from 98 in 1998 to 39 last year, and only 15 states imposed a death sentence in 2013.
“That is the larger story in the most recent case about mental retardation,” Sarat said. “It’s not just a technical adjustment, it’s part of a story to be told of capital punishment in the United States.”
But there is another way to view the court’s decision, he said.
“It’s kind of a cleanup operation,” Sarat said. “The court understands there have been some efforts on the state level that do not reflect goodwill.”
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the state Legislature has a history of ignoring U.S. Supreme Court standards on capital punishment.
“The strict IQ rule struck down by the Supreme Court is just one example of the many ways in which our state’s death penalty system falls short of constitutional and human rights standards,” Simon said in statement after the Hall ruling.
Hall’s case is the kind that stokes the fire of debate about the death penalty because it involves a bone-chilling crime. He and another man kidnapped, beat, raped and killed Karol Hurst on Feb. 21, 1978. She was 21 and pregnant.
The pair drove to a convenience store to rob it but was confronted by Sumter County sheriff’s deputy Lonnie Coburn. They shot him dead.
Jurors were told Hall was regularly beaten by his mother as a child for being slow, but the judge countered Hall had the ability to plan to a convenience store robbery.
Sumter Circuit Judge John W. Booth said Hall’s mental capacity “cannot be used to justify, excuse or extenuate moral culpability.”
Hall’s IQ scores ranged from 60 to 80, but courts threw out the two lowest and settled for 71—one point over the cutoff for “mental retardation” in Florida. The IQ test, though, has a standard of error of plus of minus five points.
Kennedy said Florida’s law shows the inherent flaw in relying on IQ tests, writing, “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”
Under Atkins, the U.S. Supreme Court set a three-prong test for states to determine an inmate’s intellectual disability. It includes the IQ test and, limitations in adaptive behavior that looks at whether someone can communicate, work and use proper hygiene. Limited intellectual function and lack of adaptive behavior skills also must have originated before age 18.
Some states have found wiggle room to circumvent the spirit of Atkins.
Georgia, for instance, requires a finding of mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt. In Texas, courts don’t rely on psychological measurements but instead use instead a subjective evidentiary standard, such as whether a defendant can lie and plan.
And while the Supreme Court decided to review Hall’s case, it rejected a Georgia appeal in October challenging that state’s standard.
John Blume, a law professor at Cornell University and a nationally recognized expert on the death penalty, said the Supreme Court “is very hard to read” when it comes to rejecting the appeal by Georgia inmate Warren Hill.
Still, the Hall decision is straightforward, a warning shot to state lawmakers who think they can maneuver around Atkins and use “junk science,” he said.
“The court seems to be weary of what states can do, how far they can deviate from the clinical definition of intellectual disability,” he said.
Attorney Eric Pinkard, who represented Hall from Florida’s Office of Capital Collateral Regional Counsel in Tampa, added: “The justices are just reaffirming what they said in Atkins. They just want that enforced, whereas the Florida system was arbitrary.”
Marc J. Tasse, director of the Nisonger Center on developmental disabilities at Ohio State University and professor of psychology and psychiatry, said as a clinician he was pleased with the Supreme Court decision.
He took exception to the dissenting opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, who called the majority view “an unwise turn in our Eighth Amendment case law” by deferring to “professional associations” to establish constitutional values.
“I hope if you have an intellectual disability, it shouldn’t matter what state you live in whether or not you get protection under Atkins,” Tasse said.