High Court to Revisit Mental Disabilities and Death Penalty This Spring


How should states decide if someone convicted of a crime has an intellectual disability, when the answer means life or death? Stateline reports that the Supreme Court will consider tht issue this spring, 12 years after it took the death penalty off the table for criminals with mental disabilities but left the details to the states. Its 6-3 decision, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, prohibited states from executing anyone with “mental retardation.” Mental health professionals define it as substantial limitations in intellectual functions such as reasoning or problem-solving, limitations in adaptive behavior or “street smarts,” and evidence of the condition before age 18.

After the decision, most states stuck with the three-pronged clinical definition, but Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas set their own standards. Under Florida's law, if you have an IQ over 70, you're eligible for execution regardless of intellectual function or adaptive behavior. Freddie Lee Hall, who has been on Florida's death row for more than 30 years and scored in the mid-70s on IQ tests, argues that the state's standard amounts to unconstitutional punishment. Most likely, the case won't result in a dramatic shift in national criminal justice policy, but will further clarify who should and should not be eligible for execution, said Ronald Tabak, an attorney who has represented multiple clients with intellectual disabilities and chairs the American Bar Association's death penalty committee.

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