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Dow – SCOTUS on Mental Disability’

David Dow
David Dow

May 27, 2014 – In a 5-4 decision today the U.S. Supreme Court decided state laws that draw a line at 70 on IQ tests in order for a defendant to mount a claim of mental disability in capital cases are too rigid and unconstitutional. The court ruled other factors should be considered in determining eligibility for execution even if a defendant’s IQ is above the accepted benchmark of 70. The ruling in Hall v. Florida was the court’s first consideration of state laws defining mental retardation since 2002 when it found executing the mentally disabled violated the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. That ruling, however, left the definition of mental retardation up to individual states. David R. Dow, University Distinguished Professor at the University of Houston Law Center and director of the Texas Innocence Network, has represented more than 100 Texas death row inmates. He answered basic questions about today’s court ruling. 

Q.)  Please explain what the court ruled today?
In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that the 8th amendment prohibits the states from executing people with mental retardation, a term which has been superseded by the phrase intellectual disability.  In Atkins, the court endorsed accepted clinical criteria for diagnosing intellectual disability.  One aspect of that diagnosis is an IQ score, and under the prevailing professional standards, an IQ of 70, plus or minus 4-5, which is the margin of error, is one element of the diagnosis. 
Florida imposed a hard and fast rule that anyone with an IQ above 70 was eligible for execution.  The court today struck down the Florida rule, essentially holding that the diagnosis of intellectual disability is a clinical medical assessment, and Florida cannot substitute its definition of the term for that endorsed by professionals in the mental health field. 

Q.)  Does this ruling affect Texas, and if so, how many death row inmates might be eligible for a resentencing hearing?
The ruling absolutely affects Texas, because Texas, like Florida, has adopted a legal rule that in many cases contravenes the clinical definition.  The problem is that at least a dozen inmates in Texas who were subject to the Texas rule – which, as I say, is not called into serious question – have long since been executed.  There are certainly a number of inmates who remain on death row in Texas who stand to benefit from this ruling.  I would be guessing as to the number, but i think a dozen is probably a conservative guess. 

Q.)  How does Texas define mental disability now in determining who is eligible for execution?
In a case called Briseno, Texas took the universe of those with intellectual disability identified in Atkins and carved out a subset that, in the eyes of the Texas court, were nevertheless eligible for execution.  The court identified that subset by asking whether the inmate could execute certain tasks.  This is actually the opposite of the clinical definition, which focuses on limitations, not abilities, and the difference is important, because most people who suffer from mild intellectual disability are functional, even though they are ineligible for execution under Atkins (and now Hall). 

Q.)  Does today’s ruling portend any significant changes in death penalty law nationwide?
Probably not.  The decision is another 5-4 decision, it comes after most people who could have benefitted from it have been executed, and it does not deal with the questions or issues that would have an extremely broad effect on the application of the death penalty.