Court tackles intellectual disability and the death penalty on Monday

The Supreme Court will hear one of the most high-profile cases of its current term on Monday, as the Justices determine how states define if a person is mentally disabled to the point of becoming ineligible for the death penalty.

350px-Supreme_Court_US_2010The Hall case arose from the 1978 murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 years old and seven months pregnant, by Freddie L. Hall. Hall was convicted and sentenced to death in Florida.

A trial judge found Hall to be mentally handicapped, and in 1999, the Florida Supreme Court ruled “there is no doubt that the defendant has serious mental difficulties, is probably somewhat retarded, and certainly has learning difficulties and a speech impediment.”

The Hall case is directly related to a case from 2002, Atkins v. Virginia, when the Court said it is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment to execute individuals who are determined to be mentally disabled.

After the Supreme Court’s Atkins decision, Hall’s attorneys challenged his death sentence. In his Supreme Court appeal, Hall’s attorneys said two dissenting judges in 1999 said testimony reflected that Hall had an estimated IQ of 60.  Florida law prohibits anyone with an IQ of 70 or higher from being classified as mentally disabled.

But when Hall’s attorneys first filed an appeal after the Atkins decision, Hall was given new IQ tests, and his scores fell between 71 and 80. In a subsequent appeal, Hall’s attorneys claimed testing showed Hall’s IQ range between 67 and 75.

So the question in front of the Court in March is this: “Does the Florida scheme for identifying mentally retarded defendants in capital punishment cases violate the standards established in Atkins v. Virginia?”

If you’d like to learn more about this case, you can listen to a recent 30-minute podcast hosted by our Jeff Rosen, with Lee Kovarsky from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and Kent Scheidegger from the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. The podcast details the history of the case, and its implications for not only Eighth Amendment cases, but for cases involving states’ rights.

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