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Podcast: The Court ponders intellectual disability and capital punishment

February 18, 2014 by NCC Staff


In early March, the Supreme Court will yet again hear a significant case involving the Eighth Amendment and capital punishment, as the justices ponder who is eligible for the death penalty.

Supreme_Court_BuildingresizedIn the case of Hall v. Florida, the justices will consider how the legal standard is set, at a state level, for determining if a person is mentally disabled to the point of becoming ineligible for the death penalty.

The Hall case is directly related to a case from 2002, Atkins v. Virginia, when the Court said it is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment to execute individuals who are determined to be mentally disabled.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority in the Atkins case, and said in the light of our ‘evolving standards of decency,’ we therefore conclude that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution places a substantive restriction on the State's power to take the life of a mentally retarded offender.”

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the Atkins dissent that the majority found “no support in the text or history of the Eighth Amendment” and “seldom has an opinion of this Court rested so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of its Members.

The Hall case arose from the 1978 murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 and seven months pregnant, by Freddie L. Hall. Hall was convicted and sentenced to death in Florida.

A trial judge found Hall to be mentally handicapped, and in 1999, the Florida Supreme Court ruled “there is no doubt that the defendant has serious mental difficulties, is probably somewhat retarded, and certainly has learning difficulties and a speech impediment.”

After the Supreme Court’s Atkins decision, Hall’s attorneys challenged his death sentence. In his Supreme Court appeal, Hall's attorneys said two dissenting judges in 1999 said testimony reflected that Hall had an estimated IQ of 60.  Florida law prohibits anyone with an IQ of 70 or higher from being classified as mentally disabled.

But when Hall’s attorneys first filed an appeal after the Atkins decision, Hall was given new IQ tests, and his scores fell between 71 and 80. In a subsequent appeal, Hall’s attorneys claimed testing showed Hall’s IQ range between 67 and 75.

So the question in front of the Court in March is this: “Does the Florida scheme for identifying mentally retarded defendants in capital punishment cases violate the standards established in Atkins v. Virginia?”

Joining us to discuss this complicated case are two leading experts on Eighth Amendment issues.

Lee Kovarsky is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. His scholarship includes constitutional law, and the death penalty, and he regularly represents capital prisoners during federal appellate and Supreme Court review of their sentences.

Kent Scheidegger has been the Legal Director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation since December 1986.  He has written over 150 briefs in cases in the United States Supreme Court.  He is the Past Chairman of the Criminal Law and Procedure Practice Group of the Federalist Society and has served on the Group’s executive committee since 1996.

National Constitution Center president Jeffrey Rosen conducts this detailed review of the Hall case with Scheidegger and Kovarsky, which you can listen to in the player below, or at the following link: Download this episode (right click and save)

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