High Court May Shield Mentally Disabled on Executions

U.S. Supreme Court justices suggested they are likely to strengthen the rules against the execution of mentally disabled people, hearing arguments in a case that may affect as many as eight death penalty states.

The justices revisited a 2002 high court decision that said states can’t constitutionally execute people who are mentally disabled. The ruling left it up to the states to define that condition, and today’s one-hour session suggested a majority of the court viewed a Florida law as being too restrictive.

Under Florida’s law, only inmates who score 70 or lower on an intelligence test are eligible to be considered mentally disabled and thereby exempt from capital punishment. The question is whether lawyers for Freddie Lee Hall, a convicted murderer with scores as low as 71, are entitled to make the case that his intellectual functioning is actually lower than that.

“Your rule prevents us from getting a better understanding of whether that IQ score is accurate or not,” Justice Anthony Kennedy, the likely swing vote, told Florida Solicitor General Allen Winsor.

Seven other states have similar cutoffs, Winsor told the court today.

Mental health experts generally consider an IQ score of 70 to mark the dividing line for mental disability. The question is how to handle people who score 71 to 75, close enough to prevent statistical confidence that they are really above the threshold.

Hall’s lawyers 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.

Hall, now 68, was convicted and 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.

The case is Hall v. Florida, 12-10882.

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