Supreme Court weary of IQ scores in determining mental capacity

Rain water reflects the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Dec. 9, 2013.
Rain water reflects the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Dec. 9, 2013.

The Supreme Court hinted Monday that states should rely on more than straight IQ test results in determining whether an inmate is mentally ill and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.

Five justices appeared to side with a Florida inmate who is challenging how the state identifies mentally-ill prisoners on death row.

In 2002, the court ruled that executing people with mental disabilities violates their Eighth Amendment rights against “cruel and unusual punishments,” yet justices left the door open for states to define who qualifies as mentally disabled. In Florida, that means prisoners who exceed an IQ score of 70 are barred from claiming a mental disability to escape execution.

Florida has attempted to execute inmate Freddie Lee Hall, now 68, for the past three decades. He was convicted for the 1978 murder of a 21-year-old pregnant woman whom he abducted from a parking lot, sexually assaulted, and fatally shot. He was also found guilty of killing a deputy sheriff later the same day.

Hall’s lawyers have repeatedly argued that he qualifies as mentally disabled even though he has an average IQ rate of more than 70 points.

“True IQ is not the same as intellectual function,” Hall’s lawyer Seth Waxman argued before the Supreme Court justices Monday, “and IQ tests themselves, however perfect they may be, don’t perfectly capture a person’s intellectual function.”

The justices on Monday sought to determine if Florida’s system for identifying mentally-ill defendants violates a 2002 precedent that protects mentally-disabled prisoners, and whether the state should apply a margin of error to IQ tests. 

Justice Anthony Kennedy appeared to side with the liberal justices in being sympathetic to Hall, who has scored an average rate slightly above 70 on multiple IQ tests within a standard error of measurement. He did not, however, raise a mental-disability claim for the first decade of his imprisonment.

“Your rule prevents us from getting a better understanding of whether that IQ score­­ is accurate or not,” Kennedy said in question of the state’s IQ test cutoff.

Some mental health professionals agree that an IQ test alone does not correctly determine a person’s mental capacity. The individual’s ability to function in society is also a contributing factor, they say.

“This is a clinical condition. It’s a condition that can only be appropriately diagnosed by professionals,” said Waxman.

“They changed their mind, counsel. This [American Psychiatric Association] is the same organization that once said that homosexuality was a mental disability and now says it’s perfectly normal. They change their minds,” Justice Antonin Scalia said in response.

The Supreme Court allowed Florida to execute a 65-year-old schizophrenic man last year despite the constitutional prohibition of capital punishment for mentally-ill prisoners. Those in favor of keeping the inmate, John Ferguson, alive, believed he should have spent the rest of his life in jail instead because he had been considered mentally ill before he was part of a group of people that killed eight individuals during the late 1970s. 

The death penalty was reinstated in Florida in 1976. Ferguson was one of seven inmates executed in Florida during 2013. Three prisoners died by capital punishment in the state this year.