How should states determine whether someone is mentally fit to be executed?
November 6, 2013
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
What makes a person unfit to be executed?
The U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments on that question later this term when Hall v. Florida comes before the justices.
The case centers on Freddie Lee Hall and a previous Supreme Court ruling that forbid anyone deemed “mentally retarded” to be executed based on the clause in the Eighth Amendment that protects against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decided in 2002 that it is unconstitutional to execute individuals who are mentally disabled because they cannot fully grasp the consequences of their actions. The court did not set a national standard on how to define “mentally retarded” and how states should apply the ruling.
This is where Hall v. Florida comes in.
In 1978, Hall and another man, Mack Ruffin, committed a double homicide in central Florida. Hall was sentenced to death while Ruffin’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison.
In response to Atkins, Florida and nine other states adopted what is called a “bright-line cutoff” that determines, based on an IQ score, whether a person is mentally competent to be executed. A score below the cutoff means the defendant is mentally retarded and cannot be executed. In Florida and the other states, a person who scores below 70 on an IQ test is considered mentally disabled.
After the Atkins ruling, Hall’s IQ was tested multiple times, and his results were between 71 and 80.
In court-mandated tests before the Atkins case, Hall scored a 60. In 1999, the Florida Supreme Court said that “there is no doubt that the defendant (Hall) has serious mental difficulties, is probably somewhat retarded, and certainly has learning difficulties and a speech impediment.”
So before Atkins, Hall was considered mentally disabled, but after the case, he was retested and found to be competent to be executed.
Hall’s lawyers argue that their client exhibited a degree of retardation that made him unable to understand the implications and gravity of his actions.
They also contend that the IQ tests are inaccurate and unreliable. They cite Hall’s score of a 60 in early testing, saying that the moving scale of Hall’s IQ shows that the tests should not be the determining factor in a death penalty case and that a hard-line score to determine whether a person is mentally fit to be executed is unconstitutional.
Hall’s attorney Eric Pinkard said: “Unfortunately, the human race has not yet developed a test for mental retardation that is like a blood pressure machine, hooked up to a defendant’s arm with a gauge that reads R for retarded or N for not retarded. The state of Florida cannot invent out of whole cloth a bright line cutoff for determining mental retardation.”
The Florida Supreme Court decided that Hall was mentally competent and that he was aware of what he was doing at the time of the killing. “While there is no doubt that [Hall] has serious mental difficulties, is probably somewhat retarded, and certainly has learning difficulties and a speech impediment, the Court finds that [Hall] was competent at the resentencing hearings,” the ruling read.
Two justices dissented. Justice Barbara Pariente wrote: “It is certainly of concern that in some states Hall would be mentally retarded by those states' definitions, while in others, like Florida, the bright-line cutoff requires a contrary finding. At some point in the future, 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 mentally retarded.”
What do you think?
Should states have a “bright-line cutoff” to determine whether someone is mentally competent to be executed? Should there be a more uniform definition for states? Or should there be a national standard? Do you agree with the Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia that it is “cruel and unusual punishment” to execute someone who is mentally disabled? Should an IQ test be the sole test to determine mental competence? How should the court rule in Hall’s case? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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