Supreme Court Imposes IQ Cutoff Point For Death Penalty In 5-4 Ruling

In a 5-4 ruling, Supreme Court today imposed an IQ cutoff point for the 32 states that still perform executions.

The Supreme Court made it more difficult Tuesday for states to impose the death penalty on prisoners who claim an intellectual disability, marking the first time it has fine-tuned a landmark 2002 decision barring executions of the mentally retarded. The court ruled that Florida must apply a margin of error to IQ tests administered to Freddie Lee Hall, 68, who killed a 21-year-old pregnant woman and a deputy sheriff in 1978. The state had argued that any test score above 70 made prisoners eligible for a death sentence, despite medical guidelines that permit scores to reach 75. The case marked a return for the court to Atkins v. Virginia, its 2002 decision that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates their 8th Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. The key dispute ever since then has been who gets to define mental retardation, now referred to as intellectual disability — states or medical professionals. The Supreme Court set a three-prong test that includes intellectual functioning, adaptive behavior and age of onset. But Florida doesn’t consider the latter two prongs if the IQ score is above 70.

Justice Anthony Kennedy provided the swing vote. Several hundred death row inmates are contesting their sentences on the basis of mental disability.