Court strikes down death penalty IQ test

Court strikes down death penalty IQ test
© Greg Nash

A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down as unconstitutional Florida’s rigid IQ test, which officials used to determine who is fit for the death penalty.

In a 5-4 opinion written by frequent swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy, the high court concluded that Florida’s policy allowing executions for death row inmates with an IQ of 70 or above violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

The amendment “reaffirms the duty of the government to respect the dignity of all persons,” thus barring the execution of people with intellectual disability, Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — the court’s liberal wing — stressed in the majority opinion that the death penalty is the gravest sentence that can be handed down.

Those facing “that most severe sanction” must be allowed to show that the Constitution prohibits them from being put to death, he wrote.

“Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world,” Kennedy wrote. “The States are laboratories for experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitution protects.”

The court also concluded that Florida’s policy disregards established medical practice.

The rule views an inmate’s IQ score as “final and conclusive” of an intellectual disability, though experts would require other evidence be incorporated in such a finding.

IQ scores are seen as imprecise, because other factors — such as guessing on answers or the subject’s mental or physical state at the time of taking the test — can factor into scores, the court found.

“The flaws in Florida’s law are the result of the inherent error in IQ tests themselves. An IQ score is an approximation, not a final and infallible assessment of intellectual functioning,” Kennedy wrote.

Florida’s Office of the Attorney General is reviewing the decision and had no additional comment, agency spokesman Whitney Ray said.

The case centered on Freddie Lee Hall, who was convicted in 1978 of kidnapping, beating, raping and murdering a pregnant 21-year-old newlywed before slaying a sheriff’s deputy trying to arrest him.

The court’s staunchest conservatives dissented in a decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

In the dissent, Alito argued that the majority decision departs from a system by which states are allowed to decide who is eligible for the death penalty, adopting “a uniform national rule that is both conceptually unsound and likely to result in confusion.”

“The appropriate confidence level is ultimately a judgment best left to legislatures, and their judgment has been that a defendant must establish that it is more likely than not that he is intellectually disabled,” Alito wrote. “I would defer to that determination.”

Executions in the states have come under renewed scrutiny since the last month’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.

Though only a handful of states use systems similar to Florida’s, Amnesty International USA issued a statement applauding the ruling as a needed step to block the execution of mentally disabled inmates on death rows around the country.

“The uproar to end the death penalty in the United States has never been louder or more necessary than it is right now,” said Steven W. Hawkins, the group’s executive director.

—This story was updated at 7 p.m.