Washington • The Supreme Court will take up a Florida case over how judges should determine if a death row inmate is mentally disabled, and thus ineligible for execution.
The justices said Monday they will review a Florida Supreme Court ruling that upheld the death sentence for a man who scored just above the state's cutoff for mental disability as measured by IQ tests.
Freddie Lee Hall was sentenced to death for killing Karol Hurst, a 21-year-old, pregnant woman who was abducted leaving a grocery store in 1978.
Florida law prohibits anyone with an IQ of 70 or higher from being classified as mentally disabled, regardless of other evidence to the contrary. Hall's scores on three IQ tests ranged from 71 to 80.
In 2002, the Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally disabled inmates. But the 6-3 decision in Atkins v. Virginia essentially left it to the states to determine how to measure mental disability.
Florida is one of nine death penalty states with a strict IQ limit, said Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente. The others are: Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington.
Pariente voted with the majority to uphold Hall's sentence, but noted there is no national consensus on how to determine mental disability.
Hall's case is legally complicated. In 1989, the Florida Supreme Court threw out Hall's original death penalty and ordered a new sentencing hearing. A judge then resentenced Hall to death, but declared he was mentally disabled. That took place before the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling and before Florida passed a law setting the IQ limit.
When Hall later filed another appeal, the same judge ruled he was not mentally disabled because his scores on IQ tests topped 70.
The case will be argued early next year.
In addition to the intelligence test score cutoff, Florida defines intellectual disability as a condition that appears in childhood and is accompanied by "deficits in adaptive behavior," which essentially means the ability to live independently. By one count, more than a dozen other states use an IQ score of 70 as a cutoff point, giving the Supreme Court's ultimate ruling potentially more significance.
"This is not just a single case; it's not just a single state," said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "A fair number of defendants' lives depend on this. This could have broad implications."
The court's decision to hear Hall's appeal means that at least four of the nine justices are interested in revisiting a 2012 Florida Supreme Court opinion that rejected the inmate's death-penalty challenge. Simply getting this far is also a victory of sorts for Hall and Pinkard, as the U.S. Supreme Court typically agrees to hear only about 75 cases out of the 9,000 or so petitions filed annually.
In the 2002 case, called Atkins v. Virginia, a divided court first concluded that the execution of the intellectually disabled violated the Constitution's Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The court's 6-3 majority reasoned that "society views mentally retarded offenders as categorically less culpable than the average criminal."
Two of the justices who dissented in that case, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, remain on the court. A staunch law-and-order conservative, Justice Samuel Alito, has replaced Sandra Day O'Connor, who voted with the majority in the Atkins case. A frequent swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy was a member of the majority in 2002 that limited the death penalty.