When is an IQ low enough for a person to be considered mentally retarded?
The United States Supreme Court made a decision in October 2013 to revisit a 2002 ruling in which the justices decided it was cruel and unusual punishment to execute a person who had been determined to be mentally retarded or affected by a low intelligence quotient, also known as IQ. The justices’ 2002 ruling, in a benchmark case entitled Atkins v. Virginia, was that it is, indeed, cruel and unusual to execute someone who was mentally retarded. What the justices did not do in their 2002 ruling is set a standard of what constitutes a low IQ. That left the individual states to set their own levels.
The current dispute centers around a man named Freddie Lee Hall, who was convicted in 1978 of murdering a pregnant woman and a Florida sheriff’s deputy. He was sentenced to death, but resentenced in 1992. At the time of resentencing, his death penalty sentence was upheld, even though he was found to be “mentally retarded.” But a person can be mentally retarded without necessarily having a low IQ, at least by the standards defined by some states’ laws, including Florida.
The “Bright Line” Cutoff Number Is In Dispute
The state of Florida uses an IQ of 70 as the threshold for someone with a low IQ. In other words, if you have an IQ of 70 or lower, you may not be sentenced to death. If the IQ is 71 or higher, then, according to Florida laws passed after the Atkins case, an execution is permissable punishment in capital cases.
Using that rationale, The State’s Supreme Court upheld Hall’s death sentence in December 2012, five days before Christmas. The ruling, affirming the death sentence, prompted Hall’s attorney, Eric Pinkard, to file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. Part of Mr. Pinkard’s brief focuses on the fact that his client, Mr. Hall, has had several IQ tests showing his score to be as low as 60, while a more recent test, administered in 2009, showed his IQ to be 71.
It is well known that an IQ may, in fact, increase or decrease by several points over the course of a lifetime, a fact that Mr. Pinkard says has caused confusion within the courts about the proper definition of mental retardation. But in the Hall case, the other element of confusion is that a person can be ruled by the courts to be “mentally retarded” and still be executed if their IQ is too high. Mr. Pinkard wrote this in his brief, quoting two justices who dissented from the majority opinion.
“The situation present in Florida, in which the Legislature has established a bright-line cutoff score that this Court has upheld, now creates a significant risk that a defendant who has once been found to be mentally retarded may still be executed.” ~ Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga
By imposing the “bright line” score of 70 as the cutoff for mental retardation, Mr. Pinkard, as well as the dissenting justices on Florida’s Supreme Court, say the new state law fails to properly address the severe mental and emotional conditions that could prevent someone from understanding the criminal nature of their conduct. This is particularly true, in the Hall case, they argue.
Florida Justices Labarga and Perry Dissent
One of those dissenting justices, James E.C. Perry, wrote, “If the bar against executing the mentally retarded is to mean anything, Freddie Lee Hall cannot be executed. I do not disagree with my esteemed colleagues that … our case law provide that a defendant establish an IQ below 70 to be ineligible to be executed, but that statute as applied here reaches an absurd result.
“The current interpretation of the statutory scheme will lead to the execution of a retarded man in this case. Hall had been found by the courts to be mentally retarded before the statute was adopted. Once the statute is applied, Hall morphs from someone who has been ‘mentally retarded his entire life’ to someone who is statutorily barred from attempting to demonstrate concurrent deficits in adaptive functioning to establish retardation.”
The nuances of the Hall case are extremely complex, and Mr. Pinkard’s brief to the U.S. Supreme Court meticulously details the variety of issues that have made this case a difficult one to settle at the state level. That is part of the reason the U.S. high court has agreed to hear the case. However, it is not clear whether the highest court in the land will rule on the issues of the so-called “bright line” litmus test or simply rule on the Hall case, alone.
Supreme Court Ruling May Impact Other States’ “Bright Line” Thresholds
If the court rules only on the Hall case, it will be making a final ruling on the application of the term “mental retardation” to a single defendant. If, on the other hand, the court determines a “bright line” test to be invalid, it will have an impact across the nation and further refine the Atkins v. Virginia ruling.
Brian Kammer, a Georgia-based attorney who has represented low-IQ defendants on death row, told USA Today the case has the potential to rewrite many states’ laws that establish a cutoff line for mental retardation. “To the extent [a Supreme Court ruling] deals with a state’s prerogative to define “mental retardation” a certain way, it would very likely have applicability to other states … in setting limits on that prerogative,” he said.
Currently, the oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court are set for March 2014. The Supreme Court case may be followed on the SCOTUS docket page for this case as well as the SCOTUS Blog page entry for Hall’s case.