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The Supreme Court’s Death Penalty Decision in Hall v. Florida

On Tuesday of this week, the U.S. Supreme Court reached a decision in Hall v. Florida, the case concerning the constitutionality of Florida’s policy for determining when a person is ineligible for the death penalty by reason of intellectual disability. Since the early 2000s, Florida’s policy had been that anyone who scored above a 70 on an IQ test was categorically not intellectually disabled. If, like Mr. Hall, the defendant in the case, an individual scored a 71 on the test, they or she could not present any further evidence that they were mentally handicapped. As such, if the individual was found guilty of a particularly heinous crime, they could be sentenced to death.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, concluded—in a 5-to-4 decision along political lines—that Florida’s policy violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In a case so close to the borderline as Mr. Hall’s, the Court said the defendant had to get an opportunity to prove, using expert psychiatric testimony, that he or she was intellectually disabled. This decision imposes a new limit on states, like Florida, that continue to employ the death penalty. It represented a major victory for the rights of the intellectually disabled. The result in this case could never have been achieved without the zealous, diligent, and passionate advocacy of Mr. Hall’s attorneys at every stage in the proceeding.

A Rough Past

Mr. Hall, it is worth noting, did commit some particularly ugly crimes. As the Supreme Court described it, Mr. Hall, together with an accomplice, “kidnaped, beat, raped, and murdered” a young woman. Afterward, the two attempted to rob a convenience store. When a sheriff’s deputy tried to apprehend them, they shot and killed him as well. However grave Mr. Hall’s crimes, his story is equally sad. He grew up in a troubled home (his mother, among other things, held a gun to him, beat him, and poked him with sticks), and he has been, for his entire life, severely intellectually handicapped. The question was not whether Mr. Hall was guilty, but whether it was just for him to be put to death for what he had done.

The Supreme Court had already ruled, 12 years ago in Atkins v. Virginia, that it was cruel and unusual punishment ever to execute those persons whose intellectual disability renders them incapable of understanding the nature of their wrongdoing. The question, thus, was how to determine who counts as mentally disabled. The problem with Florida’s hard and fast rule of using a score of 70 on an IQ test, the Court ruled, was that it failed to account for errors in measurement and statistical randomness. Mr. Hall’s score of 71 could only be understood not as a hard and fast number, but as a range of possibilities of which 71 was the center, allowing for a significant chance that Mr. Hall’s “true” IQ was below 70. As such, the Court said, leniency was required, and Florida’s bright line rule was unconstitutional. Mr. Hall’s life would be spared.

Contact a Criminal Attorney with Questions

Although ordinary criminal cases do not have these (literally) death-defying high stakes, what the case illustrates is the importance of having an advocate who will fight for you. Kevin J. Kulik is an experienced and passionate criminal defense attorney based in Fort Lauderdale who is willing to go the distance for your rights (just as Mr. Hall’s lawyers were for his); his advocacy will help to ensure that your constitutional rights are protected even in dire times.

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