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Supreme Court strengthens ban on executing mentally disabled

May 28, 2014 - 12:05am

WASHINGTON — A divided U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday strengthened the rules against the execution of mentally disabled people, striking down a Florida law that imposed a strict cutoff based on the results of an intelligence test.

Voting 5-4, the justices reinforced a 2002 decision that said states can’t constitutionally execute people who are mentally disabled. Tuesday’s ruling said Florida and as many as eight other states were being too restrictive in defining the condition.

“Florida’s law contravenes our nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

Under Florida’s law, only inmates who scored 70 or lower on an intelligence test were eligible to be considered mentally disabled and thereby exempt from capital punishment. The majority said that inmates with scores just above that level are entitled to make the case that their intellectual functioning is actually lower.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented.

The ruling means a new hearing for Freddie Lee Hall, a convicted murderer with scores as low as 71. Hall was sentenced to death for the 1978 murder of a 21-year-old pregnant woman. He was also convicted of murdering a deputy sheriff the same day.

Mental health experts generally consider an IQ score of 70 to mark the dividing line for mental disability. The question was how to handle people who score 71 to 74, close enough to prevent statistical confidence that they are really above the threshold.

Kennedy said Florida’s approach ignored the test’s margin of error. The state “disregards established medical practice,” he said.

“The professionals who design, administer, and interpret IQ tests have agreed, for years now, that IQ test scores should be read not as a single fixed number but as a range,” he wrote.

Kennedy said eight other states — Kentucky, Virginia, Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Kansas, North Carolina and Washington — used similar cutoffs or had laws that could be interpreted that way.

In dissent, Alito said the majority gave too much weight to the views of professional organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association.

“What counts are our society’s standards — which is to say, the standards of the American people — not the standards of professional associations, which at best represent the views of a small professional elite,” Alito wrote. He said society as a whole hadn’t formed a consensus around the issue.

Twenty states had allowed the execution of mentally disabled people before the court outlawed the practice in the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision.

Lawyers for Hall, now 68, say he has been treated as mentally disabled since he was a child. They say he has limited intellectual functioning and short-term memory as well as a speech impediment that hinders his ability to communicate.

“Today the court has ensured that Florida will honor the court’s judgment in Atkins that persons with intellectual disability are constitutionally protected from execution,” Eric Pickard, Hall’s lawyer, said in an emailed statement.

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