The Cautionary Instruction: Supreme Court to revisit the death penalty and mental disability

Friday, 25 October 2013 10:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

supremecourt 2013wap150The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to define mental disability for the purpose of imposing the death penalty.

In 2002, Atkins v. Virginia established that subjecting a mentally disabled individual to capital punishment would violate the Constitution. But the court left it to the states to define the parameters of who qualifies as mentally disabled for purposes of capital punishment.

Ultimately the question is whether a defendant’s mental deficiency is so significant that he is unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct. If so, his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The new case, Hall v. Florida, No. 12-10882, arose from the 1978 murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 and seven months pregnant when Freddie L. Hall and an accomplice forced her into her car in a supermarket parking lot. She was found in a wooded area, where she had been beaten, sexually assaulted and shot. Hall was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

"It is certainly of concern that in some states Hall would be mentally retarded by those states' definitions, while in others, like Florida, the bright-line cutoff requires a contrary finding," wrote Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente in a concurring opinion is Halls’ state appeal. "At some point in the future, the United States Supreme Court may determine that a bright-line cutoff is unconstitutional because of the risk of executing an individual who is in fact mentally retarded."

In a brief asking the high court to hear the case, Hall's attorney, Eric Pinkard, noted that lower courts originally placed Hall’s IQ at 60. He argued that the state cannot set a "bright line" for measuring something even the IQ tests' inventors say is a moving target.

"Unfortunately, the human race has not yet developed a test for mental retardation that is like a blood pressure machine, hooked up to a defendant's arm with a gauge that reads R for retarded or N for not retarded," the brief states. "The state of Florida cannot invent out of whole cloth a bright line cutoff for determining mental retardation."

Cornell University law professor John Blume, an expert on capital punishment, told the Los Angeles Times he was pleased the court would clarify the law. "This appears to be an egregious case, someone who was mentally retarded for his entire life," he said. "Florida is among a handful of states that rely on a single cut-off score."

(Image: U. S. Supreme Court building. Associated Press)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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