US Supreme Court revisits mental capacity in death sentencing

In mid-May, we discussed a criminal appeal that seeks to challenge the death penalty for a Texas inmate. Criminal appeals lawyers are arguing that a 2002 United States Supreme Court decision suggests that the man’s death sentence is unconstitutional based upon his mental capacity. Lawyers presented evidence that the man scored a variety of reading in IQ tests over the years; the test results generally straddled a reading of 70. His appeal was remanded for further findings regarding his mental capacity.

Since that story broke, the United States Supreme Court has further clarified the constitutional principles underlying mental capacity and the death penalty. Justice Anthony Kennedy says that, “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

At issue before the Supreme Court was a Florida law related to how that state decides if a person is mentally disabled for the purposes of the 2002 Supreme Court decision in death penalty cases. A number of states have decided that an IQ score of 70 shows that a person is not intellectually disabled. The 2002 ruling did not address that issue.

The high court has clarified that merely looking at an IQ score is not a proper analysis when determining whether the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The use of such a rigid and bright-line rule setting the finding of intellectual capacity at an IQ reading of 70 “creates an unacceptable risk that persons with an intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional,” according to the majority ruling. The ruling essentially provides a new limit on the use of capital punishment.

Criminal appeals serve many functions, including clarifying the law and correcting injustices that may have occurred in lower court rulings. This aspect of our criminal justice system provides an important level of review to help protect individual rights and maintain the integrity of the system.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Supreme Court says IQ cannot determine mental fitness in capital cases,” David G. Savage, May 27, 2014