WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Florida had adopted too rigid a cutoff in deciding who is eligible to be spared the death penalty on account of intellectual disabilities.
“Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of 70 on an IQ test,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in a 5-4 decision.
He was joined by the court’s four more liberal members.
When the court barred the execution of people with mental disabilities in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia, it largely let the states determine who qualified. Tuesday’s decision, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the four dissenters, represented a “sea change” in the court’s approach.
Kennedy responded that closer supervision of the states was warranted given the nature of the punishment.
“The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose,” he wrote. “Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution.”
The case, Hall v. Florida, No. 12-10882, arose from the 1978 murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 and seven months pregnant when Freddie L. Hall and an accomplice forced her into her car in a supermarket parking lot. She was found in a wooded area, where she had been beaten, sexually assaulted, and shot.
There was significant evidence in school and court records that Hall was “mentally retarded,” the term used at the time. Before the Supreme Court’s decision in the Atkins case, a trial judge found there was “substantial evidence” that Hall “has been mentally retarded his entire life.”
After the Atkins decision, Hall challenged his death sentence, relying in part on the earlier state court determinations.
The Atkins decision gave states only general guidance. It said a finding of retardation required proof of three things: “subaverage intellectual functioning,” meaning low IQ scores; a lack of social and practical skills; and the presence of both conditions before age 18. The court said IQ scores under “approximately 70” typically indicate retardation.
A Florida law enacted not long before the Atkins decision created what Hall’s lawyers called an “inflexible bright-line cutoff” requiring proof of an IQ of 70 or lower. In 2012, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Hall was eligible to be executed because his IQ had been measured at various times as 71, 73, and 80.
That approach, Kennedy wrote, had at least two flaws. One was that it failed to take account of standard errors of measurement.
The second problem, he said, was that a rigid cutoff excludes consideration of other evidence.
The court returned Hall’s case to the lower courts for a fresh assessment of his condition.