Hall v. Florida – New US Supreme Court Decision on Intellectual Disabilities and Criminal Law

In Atkins v. Virginia, the US Supreme Court held that the federal Constitution barred the execution of defendants with intellectual disabilities.  Based upon Atkins, Freddie Lee Hall moved before the Florida courts for an order vacating his capital sentence because he had an IQ test score of 71.  By and through his Motion, Hall sought, among other things, to present evidence of his intellectual disability.  Florida law mandated, however, that capital defendants could not present such evidence unless they had an IQ test score not exceeding 70.  Hall was precluded from presenting his evidence because his IQ exceeded the 70-point cutoff, albeit by one point.  The Florida Supreme Court rejected his appeal, finding that the State’s 70-point threshold was constitutional.

The US Supreme Court found Florida’s 70-point cutoff to be unconstitutional.  The Court began by observing that justice must be tempered with humanity and decency, and that no legitimate penological purpose is served by executing someone who has an intellectual disability.  Although defendants with intellectual disabilities who meet the legal requirements for criminal responsibility can be tried and punished, they cannot, consistent with Atkins, receive the law’s most severe sentence.  Against this backdrop, the Court began by noting that “[t]he question this case presents is how intellectual disability must be defined in order to implement these principles and the holding of Atkins.”  The Court based its response to this question largely upon the work of experts in the field of IQ testing, and upon a survey of State laws addressing this issue.

A review of the available expert material revealed that Florida’s 70-point cutoff disregarded established practice in two ways.  First, it viewed an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant’s intellectual capacity, while experts typically considered other evidence of the defendant’s abilities.  Further, the statutory cutoff relied upon the IQ score as a precise measurement, while the experts in the field viewed it as imprecise.

The Court noted that experts do not view an IQ test score as a single fixed number, but rather as a number that falls within a larger range.  Further, an individual’s test score may fluctuate on any given exam for many reasons.  Thus, a score of 71 may actually reflect a range between 66 and 76.  Additionally, because the test itself may be flawed or administered in a flawed manner, multiple examinations may result in repeated similar scores that are not conclusive evidence of intellectual functioning.  Accordingly, a rigid cutoff of 70 was totally unsupported by the available scientific material.

The Court then went on to review the current laws of States other than Florida and found that since Atkins, the vast majority of States had rejected a strict cutoff of 70.  Thus, Florida’s hard and fast rule ran contrary to the “unanimous professional consensus”, as well as the approach adopted by the vast majority of States on this issue.

In light of the foregoing, the Court found that an IQ score is an approximation, as opposed to an infallible assessment, of intellectual functioning. The Court’s language on this point was rather striking:  “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number [] Courts must recognize, as does the medical community, that the IQ test is imprecise.  This is not to say that an IQ test score is unhelpful.  It is of considerable significance, as the medical community recognizes.  But in using these scores to assess a defendant’s eligibility for the death penalty, a State must afford these test scores the same studied skepticism that those who design and use the tests do, and understand that an IQ test score represents a range rather than a fixed number.  A State that ignores the inherent imprecision of these tests risks executing a person who suffers from intellectual disability.”

Against this backdrop, Hall had to be permitted to present his evidence of intellectual disability, since such evidence could support the conclusion that his actual functioning was comparable to that of individuals whose IQ score was either at or below 70.

The foregoing is a very brief summary of a relatively complex decision which should be read in its entirety.  Further, the exact reasoning and conclusions have little direct import in States such as New Jersey that do not currently have capital punishment.  However, Hall is instructive for practitioners in non-capital punishment States because it demonstrates the importance of understanding the mechanics of psychological tests.  Many attorneys who have criminal clients evaluated by psychologists and/or psychiatrists receive expert reports containing language that appears helpful because it describes (often in great detail) their client’s various mental health issues.  However, the attorney may have little, if any, understanding of how the expert reached the ostensibly favorable conclusions outlined in their report because they have no familiarity with the manner in which the client was evaluated, or the test instruments that the expert used.  Attorneys representing clients with mental health issues cannot rely simply upon the plain language of an expert report, regardless of how positive it may appear.  Rather, they must have a basic knowledge of the test instruments that their expert used to reach those conclusions.  A basic understanding of the relevant test instruments will help the attorney be more effective in conferencing the case with prosecutors and the court, and when examining witnesses during hearings.  Such an understanding can be easily obtained by simply discussing the tests and their administration with the defense expert(s).


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