Justice fine-tuned: Court rejects rigidity in death penalty IQ case

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a death penalty case Tuesday that what’s close enough for government work is not close enough for justice. While the ruling may dismay supporters of capital punishment, it may instead have done them a favor.

If public opinion is ever shocked into demanding an end to the death penalty, it will be because some obvious injustice has been done. Executing killers who are retarded or mentally ill would fit that bill.

Freddie Lee Hall, convicted in Florida of murder and sentenced to death, is such a person. Evidence in school and court records indicate that he was severely mentally retarded. His IQ has been variously measured at 71 and 80.

All that’s a problem because in 2002 the court prohibited the execution of people with mental disabilities but left the states with general guidelines.

The 2002 opinion did say that IQ scores under “approximately 70” typically indicate disability. Florida’s top court, citing a state law, took 70 and below as a hard cut-off and allowed no other evidence of mental disability. That rigidity was an opening for Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who in his 5-4 majority opinion underscored the basic absurdity: “Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of 70 on an IQ test.”

Justice Kennedy argued that Florida’s unbending approach failed to take into account standard errors of measurement and also was blind to another consideration: “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.” Now Florida, and maybe as many as eight other states that take a similar approach, will have to consider more factors and be more careful about whom they execute — all of which is both humane and reasonable.

Make no mistake: This killer committed a terrible crime. In 1978, Hall and an accomplice kidnapped Karol Hurst, a 21-year-old pregnant newlywed, and beat, raped and shot her. They later killed a sheriff’s deputy.

But the death penalty is about holding criminals accountable — it is not just about revenge. Civilized society has long held that some people, such as children, the insane and the mentally disabled, do not necessarily possess the intelligence or moral sense to properly distinguish between right and wrong and moreover have difficulty in contributing to their own defense. A just society will calibrate their punishments carefully. In this case that is what the majority of the court has done.

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