The California Supreme Court has cleared the way for dozens of prisoners to escape death sentences on the grounds they are mentally retarded, reports the Los Angeles Times. Yesterday’s ruling defined the disability more flexibly than had been sought by prosecutors, who fear a flood of petitions from death-row inmates. Prosecutors wanted the court to define retardation using a specific IQ level. They suggested 70 on a scale on which the average is 100. The court declined. “IQ tests are insufficiently precise to utilize a fixed cutoff in this context,” Justice Janice Rogers Brown wrote.
The court said inmates could get hearings to challenge death sentences as long as a qualified expert says they are retarded. Inmates can have death sentences reduced to life in prison without parole if a judge decides it is more likely than not that they have “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning” and behavioral and practical disabilities that began before the age of 18. Thirty of California’s 640 death-row inmates say they are mentally retarded, and many more are expected to make similar claims as their court appeals progress. The 7-0 ruling was in favor of Anderson Hawthorne Jr., 44, who was sentenced to death for killing two rival gang members in Los Angeles in 1982.