Mental Disability and the Death Penalty, Can Florida Execute ‘Mentally Retarded’ Prisoner?

Article ID: 614489

Released: 3-Mar-2014 12:00 PM EST

Source Newsroom: Cornell University

Expert Pitch

John Blume is a professor of law at Cornell University Law School and has written extensively on the topic of intellectual disability and the criminal justice system, including Atkins v. Virginia.

As the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Hall v. Florida, Blume explains the history as well as potential implications of the Court’s ruling.

Blume says:“Today, the United States Supreme Court will hear argument in Hall v. Florida. The narrow but important question the Court must decide is whether persons who have been clinically diagnosed with mental retardation, now commonly referred to as intellectual disability, can nevertheless be put to death if they cannot satisfy the rigid IQ test score cutoff of 70 adopted by the Florida Supreme Court – a cutoff clearly inconsistent with the commonly agreed upon definition of mental retardation embraced by the Court in its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia.

“The Atkins Court believed – correctly – that the statutory definitions in States banning the execution of persons with intellectual disability ‘generally conform to the clinical definitions.’ The Florida Supreme Court, however, altered its definition of mental retardation post-Atkins and established a rigid IQ test score cutoff of 70 and prohibited consideration of possible measurement error. As a result, individuals like Mr. Hall, who have been clinically diagnosed as having mental retardation, can be executed if they have obtained an IQ test score a mere point or two above 70.

“Only a few states have adopted the arbitrary 70 cutoff used to reject Hall’s proof of mental retardation, so a ruling in Hall’s favor will not affect many states or, for that matter, many cases.

“Nevertheless, the case is still important, not only to Hall – whose life literally hangs in the balance – but also to make clear that states cannot narrow a categorical ban created by the Supreme Court intended to protect a vulnerable group from wrongful execution.”

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