IQ Requirements for Death Penalty to Change Due to SCOTUS Ruling
After a botched execution in Oklahoma rose questions about the cruelty of the death penalty last month, capital punishment is in the news again this week. The Supreme Court has ruled a Florida law unconstitutional that barred the execution of any prisoner with an IQ less than 70, after the case was heard in March. The law was intended to prevent inhumane treatment of those prisoners, but the Justices who voted to strike down the law stated that a strict IQ cut off did not take into account inherent issues with IQ tests. The ruling was 5-4, with the more liberal side of the court voting to overturn Florida’s law. The perennial swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy swung to their side.
The problem with such an inflexible law is that it allowed some prisoners, who fell just above the 70 point threshold, to be executed. IQ tests are not even close to absolute–there is a margin of error that needs to be taken into account. Someone with an IQ of 71 could have the same mental capacities as someone who receives an IQ test of 69. Florida’s law doesn’t recognize that. There is also the fact that IQ can vary over time. When you reach your 50s or 60s, your score will usually go down by a point or two. There’s also the problem that our IQ scores, as a society, have changed over time. Every decade, our average IQ scores go up by about 3 points. Finally, there’s the matter of education–people who had more access to education may score higher on an IQ test, even if their mental abilities are the same as another with less education. The benchmark of “70” means little to nothing, other than an arbitrary number used to decide the future of some prisoners.
Many US states that still allow capital punishment have some sort of IQ or capability requirement in order to sentence a prisoner to death. However, most of those states take a holistic look at prisoners, incorporating psychological assessments and recognizing the margin of error that is present in an IQ test. Florida was one of the few with a purely numerical cutoff, but the others with similar laws will also be forced to reevaluate their policies. The other states are Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington. Although Kansas’s death penalty hasn’t actually been used in half a century, and Washington may be moving towards abolishing theirs.
The case that made it to the Supreme Court involved a man named Freddie L. Hall. He has been in prison since 1978, when he was convicted of murdering a 21-year-old woman who was pregnant. His execution has been hanging in the balance due to his borderline IQ scores. He has taken nine IQ tests over roughly the last 50 years. On those tests, he has scored anywhere from low 60s to 80. His most recent tests have hovered right around that 70 benchmark–a few over and a few under. However, not all of his tests have been deemed admissible in court and the one that was used in his most recent hearing had a score of 71. That means that Hall was just one point about the 70 cutoff, even though there’s no evidence to suggest that he consistently could score above 70. Throughout Hall’s entire life, his doctors had classified him as mentally disabled based not just on IQ scores but on other tests and on their analysis.
As a result of the rule regarding Hall, and the changes that the nine aforementioned states will have to make, there are a few prisoners who may get another chance at appealing the ruling that put them on death row.
This is a great step towards a recognition that IQ tests have not, for a long time, been conclusive, and that something as serious as the death penalty needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis whenever possible.
Anneliese Mahoney (@AMahoney8672) is Lead Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at amahoney@LawStreetMedia.com.
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