How smart should someone be before we, as a society, may legally execute them? What metric should be used to determine their intelligence?
Those and other uniformly disquieting questions were argued March 3 before the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Hall v. Florida.
“[Freddie Lee Hall], 68, was convicted of murdering a pregnant woman, Karol Hurst, 21, in Florida in 1978,” reported Howard Koplowitz in the International Business Times on March 4. “He was sentenced to death for the murder. … Hall is challenging Florida state law that says inmates that score above 70 on an IQ test are eligible for the death penalty. While Hall says he has scored higher than that threshold, there are other measures to determine that he is mentally disabled.”
In 2002, a 6-3 SCOTUS decision, Atkins v. Virginia, found the death penalty necessarily violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” when applied to the mentally handicapped. This was a landmark case, but by no means the answer to all questions on this form of retribution.
It established the general framework, but left the fine print for the states, including Florida, to sort out.
At trial, Daryl Renard Atkins was found to have an Intelligence Quotient of 59. Hall has tested in the 71 to 80 range. To give you a better idea of the average, around two-thirds of Americans test somewhere between 85 and 115. Obviously, such arbitrary markers are inherently flawed, especially when the result means the difference between life and death.
In December, the American Psychological Association filed an amicus brief with the SCOTUS in regard to the case, stating “the use of a fixed IQ score cutoff to assess intellectual functioning violates the professional consensus and clinical norms of mental health professions. APA further notes that IQ test scores used to diagnose limitations in intellectual functioning are subject to a standard error of measurement and the interpretation of IQ test scores must take the test’s reliability into account.”