WASHINGTON – States should look beyond an intelligence test score in borderline cases of mental disability to determine whether a death row inmate is eligible to be executed, the Supreme Court indicated Monday.
Twelve years after the Supreme Court barred execution of the mentally disabled, the justices heard arguments about how states evaluate claims of mental disability that, if substantiated, protect inmates from being put to death.
Five justices, enough to form a majority, pointed repeatedly to the margin of error inherent in IQ and other standardized tests. They voiced skepticism about the practice in Florida and certain other states of barring an inmate from claiming mental disability when his IQ score is just above 70.
That score is widely accepted as a marker of mental disability, but medical professionals say people who score as high as 75 can be considered intellectually disabled because of the test’s margin of error. In any case, there is a consensus that the test score should be just one factor in determining mental disability.
Lawyers for inmate Freddie Lee Hall said there is ample evidence to show that he is mentally disabled, even though most of his multiple IQ tests have yielded scores topping 70. Hall has been on death row for more than 35 years since being convicted of murdering a pregnant 21-year-old woman in 1978.
For his part, Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to the brutality of Hall’s crime and the several steps it took to abduct and kill the pregnant woman, and a sheriff’s deputy a short time later, as indications that Hall seemed to have sufficient mental capability. Could the state show that in refutation of his mental-retardation evidence? Scalia said.
Justices generally sympathetic to Waxman’s case pressed him to establish a workable rule for states. A line has to be drawn somewhere, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
A score of 76 would preclude an inmate from arguing mental disability, Waxman said. That cutoff, in place in Mississippi and Oklahoma, is far enough away from 70 to be outside the margin of error, he said.