Eighth Amendment - Cruel and Unusual Punishments - Defendants with Intellectual Disability

Harvard Law Review, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Eighth Amendment - Cruel and Unusual Punishments - Defendants with Intellectual Disability


In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia (1) that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of defendants with intellectual disability. (2) However, the Court declined to establish a uniform protocol for identifying protected individuals, instead leaving to the states "the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences." (3) Subsequently, the Florida Supreme Court construed Florida's criminal code to bar any person with an IQ over 70 from offering evidence of intellectual disability. (4) Last Term, in Hall v. Florida, (5) the U.S. Supreme Court found that such a bar violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by "creat[ing] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." (6) In finding Florida's evidentiary process insufficient to vindicate Atkins's substantive guarantee, the Court relied on "strong evidence of consensus" against a 70-point IQ cutoff. (7) Inquiry into national consensus to evaluate a largely procedural point was not inevitable and, unless Hall is convincingly limited, could create a precedential toehold for challenges to other outlier sentencing practices.

In 1978, twenty-one-year-old Karol Hurst, then seven months pregnant, was abducted, sexually assaulted, and shot dead. (8) Freddie Lee Hall and his codefendant, Mack Ruffin, were arrested and convicted for Hurst's murder. (9) Hall received a death sentence, which the Florida Supreme Court affirmed. (10) In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Hitchcock v. Dugger, (11) holding that a capital sentencer must consider all relevant mitigating evidence the defendant presents. (12) Relying on Hitchcock, Hall challenged his sentence in state court and was ultimately granted a new sentencing proceeding. (13) At resentencing, the trial court cited Hall's intellectual disability as a mitigating factor but nevertheless imposed the death sentence again. (14) After the U.S. Supreme Court decided Atkins, Hall moved to vacate his sentence on the grounds that his intellectual disability exempted him from the death penalty. (15) Although Hall had previously been judged "probably somewhat retarded" (16) and had previously presented an IQ score of 60, (17) Hall failed to establish an IQ of 70 or below at his Atkins hearing, rendering him incapable of satisfying Florida's intellectual disability standard. (18) The court therefore denied relief, and Hall appealed. (19)

The Florida Supreme Court affirmed. (20) To prove intellectual disability under Florida law, a defendant must show "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the period from conception to age 18." (21) "[S]ignificantly subaverage general intellectual functioning" (22) is statutorily defined as "performance that is two or more standard deviations from the mean score on a standardized intelligence test." (23) Relying on a precedential interpretation of this provision that created a rigid 70-point IQ cutoff for intellectual disability claims, (24) the court rejected Hall's contention that his IQ scores ought to be interpreted as part of a range. (25) Moreover, the court found no error in the trial court's refusal to permit Hall to present evidence of deficits in adaptive behavior; because Florida's intellectual disability standard requires both subaverage intellect and adaptive deficits, Hall's failure to prove subaverage intellect was dispositive. (26) Finally, the court found no error in the trial court's refusal to consider evidence of Hall's intellectual disability from past sentencing hearings. (27) Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Bobby v. Bies, (28) the court noted that "[m]ental retardation as a mitigator and mental retardation under Atkins ... are discrete legal issues." (29) Thus, the court denied relief. (30)

The Supreme Court reversed. (31) Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy (32) found Florida's scheme unconstitutional because it "contravene[d] our Nation's commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world. …

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