Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Supreme Court rules in favor of death row inmates with mental defects

"The states are laboratories for experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitution protects."  -- Justice Anthony Kennedy, Hall v. Florida
Yesterday the US Supreme Court got it right. Of course it was, as usual, a 5-4 vote. But that one vote was enough to change the law regarding the determination of who is and who isn't mentally retarded when it comes to jabbing a needle in the arm.

The immediate beneficiary of the ruling in Hall v. Florida, 572 US ___ (2014), was Florida death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall. Mr. Hall's attorneys argued that Mr. Hall was mentally retarded and that executing him would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In the 1950's Mr. Hall was considered mentally retarded by the school system - as that term was defined in that era. On a series of IQ tests administered between the late 60's and 2009, Mr. Hall consistently scored between 69 and 74. For years a score of 70 has been seen as the dividing line between who is and who isn't mentally retarded when it comes to killing them.

The idea that a number on a subjective test should be the tool by which we decide who can and cannot be murdered by the state is absurd. Few things in this world are black and white, most of us live in shades of grey. A person may score over a 70 on an IQ test and still not have the tools and skills necessary to survive out in the world.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court held that in cases in which an IQ test score indicates an inmate is on the borderline, that inmate must be allowed to bring in other evidence to demonstrate the existence of a mental disability.

The four dissenting justices, led by Samuel Alito, argued that there was no evidence to suggest that it was unconstitutional for the state to execute someone suffering from a mental disability.

But all of this raises a more troubling question - if a person suffering from a mental defect is not considered competent enough to execute, did that person have the ability to form the necessary intent to be convicted of  the crime in the first place?

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