Supreme Court of the United States
134 S. Ct. 1986, May 27, 2014
Keywords: ADA – general, capital punishment, enforcement, intellectual disability, legal concepts, state & local government
Quick View of the Case
Summary: Florida Statute § 921.137, “Imposition of the death sentence upon an intellectually disabled defendant prohibited” states that “A sentence of death may not be imposed upon a defendant convicted of a capital felony if it is determined… that the defendant is intellectually disabled.”
Facts of the Case
In 1978, Freddie Lee Hall and an accomplice kidnapped, beat, raped, and murdered a woman in Florida. Hall and his accomplice then drove to a convenience store they planned to rob, and killed a sheriff’s deputy who attempted to apprehend them in the process. Hall was convicted in 1978 and received the death penalty for both murders, but his sentence for the second murder was later reduced. He has been incarcerated on Florida’s death row since his conviction
In the 1987 case of Hitchcock v. Dugger, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that capital defendants must be permitted to present non-statutory mitigating evidence in death penalty proceedings. As a result, Hall presented evidence of intellectual disability including school records, multiple attorneys’ records and briefs, medical and clinical opinions, and siblings’ testimony at a resentencing hearing. Even after hearing such evidence, the jury and judge again sentenced Hall to death in 1991.
The Florida legislature enacted statute § 921.137 in 2001, prohibiting death sentences for individuals with intellectual disabilities. One year later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibited the execution of persons with intellectual disability in Atkins v. Virginia. Hall filed a motion in 2004 in the Supreme Court of Florida claiming that he had an intellectual disability and could not be executed. At this new hearing, Hall again presented evidence of his intellectual disability, this time including several IQ scores. Of the nine IQ evaluations he offered, with scores ranging from 60 to 80, the sentencing court excluded the two scores below 70 for evidentiary reasons. This left only scores between 71 and 80. Because Florida law required Hall to show an IQ test score of 70 or below before he would be allowed to present additional evidence of his intellectual disability, the Florida Supreme Court rejected Hall’s appeal. In 2013, Hall appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on a constitutional basis.
Issues of the Case
Is Florida statute § 921.137, which prohibits the sentence of death upon a defendant, who is convicted of a capital felony and who is intellectually disabled, constitutional as interpreted by Florida’s courts in requiring an IQ test score of 70 or below if the court is to consider any evidence bearing on the question of intellectual disability?
Arguments & Analysis
The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This prohibits certain punishments as a categorical matter, such as: no natural-born citizen may be denaturalized; no juvenile may be sentenced to death; and, as decided in Atkins, persons with intellectual disability may not be executed.
According to Atkins, the medical community defines intellectual disability according to a three-prong analysis. This analysis includes the following: a significantly sub-average intellectual functioning, deficits in adaptive functioning (the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances), and the onset of these deficits during the developmental period. Though Atkins specified that individuals with intellectual disabilities cannot be sentenced to death, and it proposed this three-prong analysis for the courts to use, it left the specific requirements for proving an intellectual disability up to the individual states.
Florida statute § 921.137 follows the Supreme Court’s three-prong analysis outlined in Atkins for its definition of intellectual disability. Additionally, it defines significant sub-average intellectual functioning as “performance that is two or more standard deviations from the mean score on a standardized intelligence test.” The IQ test, which is used in this case, has a mean test score of 100 with a standard deviation of 15. Thus, the statute endorses an IQ score at or below 70 in order to prove significant sub-average intellectual functioning.
As previously interpreted, Hall argued that Florida’s rule disregards established medical practice in two ways: it takes an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of an individual’s intellectual capacity, and it relies on the IQ score even though that score is recognized to be imprecise.
First, instead of weighing the three prongs of the Atkins analysis simultaneously, the Florida courts use this prong as a barrier to the other two; thus, if an individual’s IQ test score is above 70, that person does not have an intellectual disability and is barred from presenting other evidence that would show his intellectual abilities are limited. The Court specifies that Florida statute § 921.137, as interpreted, uses the IQ score as “final and conclusive evidence” of intellectual disability, but that experts in the field would consider other evidence concurrently with the IQ score.
Second, the Court notes that the professionals who design, administer, and interpret IQ tests conclude that each individual IQ test has a standard error of measurement. This statistical fact reflects that an individual’s intellectual functioning cannot be reduced to a single numerical score, and thus an individual’s score is best understood as a range on either side of that recorded score. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the margin for error is normally +/- 5 points. This means a score of 70 reflects intellectual ability within the range of 65-75.
The Supreme Court also points to the actions of other states to show that Florida’s strict interpretation is not a majority procedure: “in 41 States an individual in Hall’s position—an individual with an IQ score of 71 — would not be deemed automatically eligible for the death penalty.” Additionally, the Court concludes that all but one state that has considered this issue after Atkins has taken a position contrary to that of Florida.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s courts were interpreting § 921.137 unconstitutionally. Florida’s courts used the IQ score as a barrier to reviewing further evidence of intellectual capacity, did not acknowledge that the score could be imprecise or allow for a range instead of a specific number score, and did not comport with the decisions or practices of the majority of other states. Thus, the Supreme Court ruled § 921.137 is unconstitutional, and remanded the case to the Supreme Court of Florida.
Policy & Practice
The U.S. Supreme Court has taken a strong stance in this case in agreeing explicitly with the APA’s standards regarding identifying intellectual disabilities and also connecting that analysis with the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Accordingly, the Court notes that it is not sound to view a single factor, such as an IQ score, as separate from the rest of the analysis.
Explicitly, the Supreme Court “agrees with the medical experts that when a defendant’s IQ test score falls within the test’s acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits.”
More generally, it seems that individuals with intellectual disabilities will have greater protection from capital punishment. State statutes providing for capital punishment that are interpreted to have strict cutoffs for IQ test scores regarding intellectual disability, and which ignore other evidence of intellectual disability, likely are unconstitutional.
Out of the other seven states in the Southeast Region (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee), Alabama and Kentucky have a process similar to Florida that could be considered unconstitutional, if questioned. Alabama’s interpretation is not due to legislation, but to a 2008 ruling in Smith v. State; Kentucky, however, has legislation seemingly identical to Florida’s that allows for a strict cut-off score of 70. North Carolina’s statute may allow for an unconstitutionally strict interpretation also, as it lists an IQ score of 70 or below directly within its requirements, but its courts have not yet considered this issue.
- Supreme Court Slip Opinion [PDF file]
- See also: Hitchcock v. Dugger, 481 U.S. 393 (1987)
- See also: Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321 260 Va. 375, 534 S. E. 2d 312, reversed and remanded (2002)
These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.