Civil rights groups applauded a Supreme Court decision on Tuesday to strike down a Florida law that set strict criteria based on IQ test scores to determine eligibility for the death penalty.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that Florida’s law made it too difficult to prove that a death row inmate has an intellectual disability and is, therefore, ineligible for execution.
The defendant in the case, inmate Freddie Lee Hall, will receive another chance to show he is ineligible for the death penalty. Though Hall, a convicted murderer, was initially determined to be mentally disabled in 1992, Florida later found him competent after he scored a 71 on an IQ test — the minimum to qualify for death row in the state.
“The Supreme Court is telling Florida leaders — who passed the unconstitutional law allowing for the execution of Freddie Hall — that if you want to impose the death penalty, it must be done in a way that respects standards of decency and basic human rights,” Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida, said Tuesday in a press release.
“Florida’s death penalty system is broken, and if state leaders wish to continue sentencing people to die, they must address that system’s failings,” said Simon. “Florida is the only state in the country where the vote of a simple majority of jurors can recommend that a person receive a sentence of death.”
Tuesday’s decision makes it clear that Florida must use IQ tests in the manner consistent with the view of those who design and interpret those tests. The scores represent a range and must be considered in light of other contextual evidence in order to determine whether the defendant has an intellectual disability, Virginia Sloan, president of The Constitution project, a bipartisan legal watchdog, said in a press release.
“The Court’s decision addresses a truly significant concern in the application of the death penalty, but other concerns related to executing those with intellectual disability remain,” Sloan said. “There is much more for states, and if necessary, the Court to do to prevent the continued unconstitutional executions of those with intellectual disabilities.”
The ruling could have implications for states other than Florida, which has the U.S.’s second-largest death row. Eight other states, including Virginia and Alabama, have similarly rigid processes to determine intellectual disability.
The high court’s decision reversed a Florida Supreme Court decision that determined Hall would have to show an IQ of 70 or below before being allowed to present any additional evidence about his intellectual disability.
Writing the majority decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy made clear in its Hall vs. Florida decision, “If States were to have complete autonomy to define intellectual disability as they wished … the Eight Amendment’s protection of human dignity would not become a reality.”
The Eighth Amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment, and while the death penalty itself doesn’t violate that ban, the amendment shapes how and when executions can be carried out.