It will likely be two to three months before we find out which direction the justices decided upon. Depending on their ultimate decision, the Hall case could seriously revise the Atkins decision and every state law on which it is based.
“You give somebody an IQ test, he scores a 71,” said Justice Elena Kagen to Florida Solicitor General Allen Winsor in court March 3. “Now, he might actually have an IQ of 71, or we know from the way these standard margins of error work, he might have an IQ of 69, and you won’t let him go to the adaptive behavior prong of the test and show that … he can’t function in society in the ways that Atkins seems to care about.”
From the questions being asked and statements being made from the bench, though, change looks likely.
“A majority of the Supreme Court seemed ready … to find that Florida has made it too hard to prove that a death row inmate is mentally retarded and thus ineligible for execution,” reported Robert Barnes in the Washington Post on March 3.
Using a single number to determine if someone should breathe their last or not is flat-out wrong. It doesn’t account for the so-called “range of confidence” that could swing IQ scores up or down by up to five points based on the particular day the test is given. There is no way this overly simplified method can account for every aspect of a prisoner’s mental capacity. It undermines the spirit of both Atkins and the Eighth Amendment.
Beyond the inherent inaccuracy, these doomed inmates may not even understand what’s happening to them or why. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, people who suffer from borderline intelligence functioning have significant trouble grasping abstract concepts.
Butchering such convicts extends beyond our modern understanding of the words “punishment” or “justice.” It slithers menacingly into the realm of cruel catharsis.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.