Supreme Court Revisits Constitutionality of Executing Intellectually Disabled Inmates

Imagine a scenario where a score on a test – literally the difference of one point – meant life or death. This scenario is played out in courtrooms everyday as a one point difference in an I.Q. test score can mean a person is eligible for the death penalty or not. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing defendants with intellectual disabilities was unconstitutional. However, the court left it to the states to enforce the ruling with only general guidance. According to Adam Liptak of The New York Times:

…finding of intellectual disability requires proof of three things: “subaverage intellectual functioning,” meaning low I.Q. scores; a lack of fundamental social and practical skills; and the presence of both conditions before age 18. The court said I.Q. scores under “approximately 70” typically indicate intellectual disability.

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the case of Florida death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall, who was convicted in 1978 of murdering Karol Hurst, who was pregnant at the time. Hall has routinely scored between 69 and 80 on I.Q. tests, and experts have testified to his intellectual disability. The state of Florida, however, has proceeded with its plans to execute Hall, as his case was decided prior to the 2002 Supreme Court ruling and because Hall scored above the 70-cutoff point on some IQ tests.

Justice Anthony Kennedy and other justices challenged aspects of the state’s position, focusing on the rigid adherence to the 70-point score (rather than considering the test’s five-point margin of error); the state’s apparent lack of attention to the opinion of medical professionals in diagnosing inmates; and other factors, which can be read here.

Georgia death row inmate Warren Hill has been battling the state for years to demonstrate his intellectual disability, as all the experts who have evaluated him agree that he has an intellectual disability. Georgia, however, has the strictest requirement of any state in the country: one must prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. In October 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Mr. Hill’s request to consider stopping his execution because of his intellectual disability. Instead, Mr. Hill has a stay of execution based on challenges to Georgia’s lethal injection protocol.

Recently, the Tennessean did a number of stories on the lack of funding for the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, specifically detailing the number of Tennesseans who have been waiting for years for assistance. This stark reality for so many of Tennessee’s most vulnerable citizens raises the question of fiscal priorities: Would we rather spend millions of dollars to execute death row inmates, some suffering from the same disabilities, or spend our money on those whose needs are not being met under the current system? What broader societal problems might be addressed if the bloated mechanism of capital punishment was abolished?

Photo source: The New York Times

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