Supreme Court to Clarify Constitutional Ban on Executing Intellectually Disabled Persons


Eleven years after the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for persons with intellectual disability, it granted review in a Florida case on Monday to address how its decision is being implemented.

In 1992, Florida state courts made factual findings that Freddie Hall had been “[intellectually disabled] all of his life.” Execution of people with intellectual disability was permitted at that time, and Mr. Hall was sentenced to death despite the courts’ findings.

In 2002, the Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits imposing the death penalty on intellectually disabled people. The Court wrote that a finding of intellectual disability requires proof of “subaverage intellectual functioning” (low IQ scores), deficits in adaptive functioning (basic social, academic, and practical skills), and the presence of both conditions before age 18. Adopting well-accepted clinical definitions, the Court wrote that IQ scores under “approximately 70” typically indicate intellectual disability, but left it to the states to work out the details.

States like Florida have responded to Atkins by implementing standards for proving intellectual disability that are allowing people to be executed despite the fact that they are intellectual disabled.

In Mr. Hall’s case, despite the earlier findings that he was intellectually disabled, Florida courts decided Mr. Hall could be executed notwithstanding Atkins because his IQ had been measured at slightly above 70 (although there was also evidence that his IQ may be as low as 60). The state court relied on a Florida law enacted before Atkinswhich created a bright-line cutoff at 70.

That bright-line cutoff is unconstitutional because it ignores the standard error of measurement that is part of the clinical definition of intellectual disability, Mr. Hall argued in his petition to the Supreme Court. IQ tests have a five-point margin of error, which means a score of 75 qualifies as intellectually disabled.

In a concurring opinion, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente anticipated that the United States Supreme Court “may determine that a bright-line cutoff is unconstitutional because of the risk of executing an individual who is in fact [intellectually disabled].”

The Supreme Court is expected to hear argument in Hall v. Florida early next year.