This Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Florida law that defined intellectually disability for death row inmates as a score of 70 or below. For severely disabled prisoners, states now have to consider how the person has lived and functioned throughout his life to determine disability, not just their IQ score. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said in his ruling on Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court has recognized that “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”
Before this ruling, a one-point difference in IQ would make the difference between life and death for people on death row in Florida. An IQ score above 70 meant that a person was determined mentally sound—and the state could pursue the death penalty. A score below 69 meant that the person was disabled enough that execution was cruel and unusual punishment.
As background, in the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, the Court banned the death penalty for people with mental disabilities, reasoning that, because people developmental disabilities often act impulsively and without considering the consequences, it would be “cruel and unusual punishment” to put them to death. In that ruling, the court noted that an IQ score below 70 was a common sign (though not solely determinative) of intellectual disability. Ever since then, Florida, Virginia, Kentucky and Alabama had laws that determined intellectual disability based solely on IQ score. Anyone who scored a 70 or higher was determined to not have had an intellectual disability. Five other states — Arizona, Delaware, Kansas, North Carolina and Washington — appear to use a “bright-line cutoff” based on an IQ test. Thanks to yesterday’s opinion, this ‘line’ is no longer relevant—each person needs to be viewed and understood holistically, as a whole, not as a number.
Yesterday’s ruling was a powerful step in the right direction. The ruling challenges us as a nation to consider the negative consequences of applying the sentence of death to any of our citizens. Who are we to say who lives and who dies? Who sets the arbitrary rules, lines, and cutoffs? Is there really a way to look at an entire person, to understand their history, and what brought them to the day they committed the crime? Is there a way to quantify remorse, or the ability to pursue a second chance? We believe there is not—and that because we cannot look at the individual holistically, because we are human, not god-like creatures, we should not be making these decisions.
In the last decade, several states have reversed their use of capital punishment: Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and New Mexico abolished it and New York’s death penalty was struck down by a state court in 2004. Following the shocking execution in Oklahoma last month, President Obama has directed the attorney general, Eric Holder, to review the death penalty, We welcome the intensifying debate on this cruel practice and are hopeful that this practice will be one we soon look back on as a country, wondering how we ever believed we were capable of deciding who died and who lived—who was deserving of a second chance.