Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Matching the Trajectory of the Supreme Court on the Intellectual Disability Defense: A Recommendation for the States

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Matching the Trajectory of the Supreme Court on the Intellectual Disability Defense: A Recommendation for the States

Article excerpt

Like many of the provisions found within the Bill of Rights, the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishments" has become a household phrase. While inherently very memorable and quotable, the types of punishment actually prohibited by the Eighth Amendment's "cruel and unusual" language have been subject to hundreds of years of statutory and judicial interpretation. In 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States addressed one particular aspect of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence in Hall v. Florida (1): the intellectual disability defense. (2) In Hall, the Court struck down a Florida statute which prohibited criminal defendants facing capital punishment from invoking the intellectual disability defense if they had an IQ greater than seventy. (3)

The Court's decision in Hall is just the most recent in a line of cases defining the intellectual disability defense. While at first glance Hall might seem like a logical extension of its predecessors, when viewed in light of the surrounding case law and the status of intellectual disability statutes around the country, the decision actually creates uncertainty as to the future shape of the intellectual disability defense. Thus, it is essential for the states to review their own intellectual disability defenses to ensure compliance with Hall and the developing trend in intellectual disability defense jurisprudence. Once the requirements of the Court's decision in Hall are fully understood, as well as the reasoning behind that decision, states would be well served in adopting an intellectual disability defense statute similar to California's statute.

I. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT PRIOR TO THE INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY DEFENSE

Compared to many of the other amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, the text of the Eighth Amendment is relatively succinct, stating plainly that "[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." (4) The Eighth Amendment represents an important, self-imposed restraint on governmental power, which demonstrates that it is "the duty of the government to respect the dignity of all persons," including criminals. (5) Based on the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, Justice Brennan wrote that any punishment that was "degrading to human dignity[,] ... inflicted in a wholly arbitrary fashion[,] ... patently unnecessary," or "rejected [by] society" was to be considered constitutionally impermissible. (6)

Historically, a convicted defendant's intellectual disability was not considered an absolute defense against a sentence of capital punishment. (7) In Penry v. Lynaugh, the defendant was charged with rape and murder and was subsequently convicted and sentenced to death. (8) However, Penry, the defendant, had been clinically diagnosed as mentally retarded from a young age, most likely due to organic brain damage caused by trauma during birth. (9) Psychologists gave Penry several IQ tests over the course of his life, with results indicating an IQ of somewhere between fifty and sixty-three, which was indicative of "mild to moderate retardation." (10) The defendant's expert witness, a clinical psychologist, testified that Penry had the intelligence of a six-and-one-half-year-old and the social maturity of a nine- or ten-year-old. (11) At sentencing, Penry argued that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment should preclude the jury from invoking capital punishment. (12) The trial court rejected this defense and the jury sentenced Penry to death. (13) On appeal, the Supreme Court rejected the contention that it was cruel and unusual to execute a mentally retarded defendant. (14) While the Justices recognized that "mental retardation is a factor that may well lessen a defendant's culpability for a capital offense," the Court did not accept the conclusion that the intellectual disability of a defendant like Penry could be raised as an absolute defense against capital punishment. …

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