SCOTUS to address use of IQ tests in death penalty cases

A case that highlights margin of error in determination of mental retardation will have its day in Supreme Court

By Natasha Lennard

Published October 21, 2013 6:25PM (EDT)

A mans life hangs in the balance in Florida over one IQ point. According to Florida justices, Freddie Lee Hall is ineligible for execution because he is one crucial IQ point above the standard for mental retardation (with an IQ score of 71).

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear Hall's case, which will bring into question the entire practice of relying on arbitrary test scores to determine mental capability for the death penalty.

In the 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that, like in the case of juveniles, capital punishment was not an appropriate punishment for the mentally retarded (the controversial term applied in the legal parlance). However, the Atkins ruling designated that each state can choose their own methods for determining retardation, leaving room for a problematic limit cases, like Hall's, to arise.

As Think Progress noted:

[T]here is something profoundly arbitrary about saying that a man can be killed because he happens to take a test that produces a result near the high end of a margin of error.

So Hall will determine whether such arbitrariness is allowed in death penalty cases, but there’s a much larger question implicit in this determination. If the Supreme Court second-guesses Florida’s decision to use a largely arbitrary process to determine who is or is not intellectually disabled, then that’s a significant blow to it’s prior holding that the states should “develop[] appropriate ways” to implement the ban on executing such inmates.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Capital Punishment Death Penalty Florida Hall V. Florida Iq Iq Test Mental Retardation Scotus Supreme Court