Supreme Court to Revisit the Determination of Mental Disability in Capital Cases

On October 21, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an order indicating that it would hear the case of Hall v Florida (Dkt. No. 12-10882), where it will decide whether the state of Florida’s process for identifying mentally retarded defendants in capital (death penalty) cases is lawful, or whether it violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v Virginia.

In Atkins, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that executing mentally retarded individuals violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. The majority opinion, written by Justice Stevens, stated that “Clinical definitions of mental retardation require not only subaverage intellectual functioning, but also significant limitations in adaptive skills. Mentally retarded persons frequently know the difference between right and wrong and are competent to stand trial, but, by definition, they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand others’ reactions. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability.”

Hall, presently 68, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1978 shooting deaths of a sheriff’s deputy and a pregnant woman. The Florida governor signed his death warrant in September 1982. After numerous appeals, a new sentencing hearing was ordered. At this resentencing, the trial court found Hall to be mentally retarded as a mitigating factor but gave it “unquantifiable” weight. The trial court again condemned Hall to death and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the decision.

After the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Atkins, Hall again appealed, contesting the constitutionality of Florida Statutes, section 921.137.  In death penalty cases, this statute requires a finding that the defendant has “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the period from conception to age 18.” To make this finding, court-appointed experts in the field of mental retardation must evaluate the defendant and report their findings to the court and all interested parties prior to the final sentencing hearing. A sentence of death may not be imposed if it is determined by the court in accordance with section 921.137 that the defendant has mental retardation.

For this appeal, Hall was retested and found to be competent with an Intelligence Quotent (IQ) of 71, based on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, where the average person scores 100. Hall had been previously tested with an IQ of 73 and 80, respectively. The Florida Supreme Court again denied Hall relief, holding that the Florida cutoff IQ score of 70 or below to meet the test for mental retardation, as necessary to preclude the death penalty, was not improperly arbitrary.  Hall then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for relief.

Hall’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court alleges that the Florida courts invented “a new definition of mental retardation which requires a non-existent ‘bright line’ standardized IQ score of 70 or below, which is contrary to the recommendations of the inventors and developers of the very IQ tests the Florida retardation statutes rely upon by ignoring the scientifically accepted and essential standard error of measurement and use of confidence intervals.”  Basically, Hall’s lawyers are contending that the inventors of the IQ test did not intend for it to provide a “bright line” answer to the question of mental retardation, but only a range of possible scores, and since Hall’s range would be from 67 to 75, it would leave room for doubt as to whether he is mentally retarded.

Florida’s brief in opposition urged the U.S. Supreme Court to decline review of Florida’s definition of mental retardation and its application of the IQ prong (IQ of 70 or less) to their statutory definition of mental retardation because it does not conflict with any U.S. Supreme Court decision (including Atkins), was decided correctly on adequate and independent state law grounds, and because it cannot be resolved without extensive factual discussion that has no impact on any other case.

It should be noted that in the past year, the term “mental retardation,” which was used in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR), has been changed in DSM-5 to the term “intellectual disability,” which has come into common use over the past two decades among medical and educational professionals, the lay public, and advocacy groups. A federal statue (P.L. 111-256, Rosa’s Law) has also replaced the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability.” According to the American Psychiatric Association, despite the name change, the deficits in cognitive capacity beginning in the developmental period, with the accompanying diagnostic criteria, are still needed to constitute a mental disorder.  In DSN-5, the term “intellectual developmental disorder” was placed in parentheses to reflect the World Health Organization’s classification system, which lists “disorders” in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD; ICD-11 to be released in 2015) and bases all “disabilities” on the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF). Because the ICD-11 will not be adopted until 2015, “intellectual disability” was chosen by the American Psychiatric Association as the current preferred term with the future term of “intellectual development disorder” in parentheses. It is uncertain what effect, if any, this change in terminology will have on Hall or future cases.

Atkins v Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S. Ct. 2242, 153 L. Ed. 2d 335 (2002).