By Dov Fox
The U.S. Supreme Court has not in recent years held the views of the American Psychological Association (APA) in so high regard as it did this week.
In 2012, the Court set aside the APA’s arguments for why due process requires the exclusion of eyewitness testimony obtained under suggestive circumstances that rendered it especially likely to be unreliable.
And in 2011, when the Court struck down on free speech grounds a state regulation on violent video games, it gave short shrift to the APA’s warnings about those games’ connection to violent behavior in young boys.
But in its recent death penalty decision, Florida v. Hall, the Court relied heavily on important APA insights in declaring it unconstitutional for states to set an IQ cutoff to determine whether a prisoner is eligible to receive capital punishment.
Freddie Lee Hall, convicted of murdering two people in 1978, argued that his cognitive impairment made it cruel and unusual for the state to take his life. But under Florida law, the state high court had held, Hall’s IQ score was just high enough to disqualify him from being spared execution.
Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Kennedy cited extensively to the brief filed by the APA to conclude that IQ tests are so imprecise that any rigid threshold “creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.” He wrote:
Florida’s rule disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways. It takes an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant’s intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence. It also relies on a purportedly scientific measurement of the defendant’s abilities, his IQ score, while refusing to recognize that the score is, on its own terms, imprecise.
. . .
The Florida statute, as interpreted by its courts, misuses IQ score on its own terms, and this, in turn, bars consideration of evidence that must be considered in determining whether a defendant in a capital case has intellectual disability. Florida’s rule is invalid under the Constitution’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.
Now Florida’s high court will take another look at Hall’s case in light of the Supreme Court’s decision. It requires the state’s rules about death-eligibility to incorporate additional evidence, such as general intellectual or adaptive functioning, beyond just the IQ scores that the APA has shown are imprecise and subject to error.