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Be Kind, Don’t Be Cruel: Intellectual Disabilities and the Death Penalty

In Atkins v. Virginia,[1] the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could not be imposed on those with mental disabilities, deeming such a sentence as constituting “cruel and unusual punishment” as outlawed by the Eighth Amendment.[2] While Atkins was a seminal case in the field of disability law, the wording in parts of the Court’s ruling left ambiguity in the degree to which someone must be mentally incapacitated to qualify as being intellectually disabled. These inherent and dangerous flaws opened the gateway for states to impose drastically different definitions of what qualifies individuals as mentally disabled and thus allows different states to sentence people with widely varying degrees of intellectual disabilities to the most severe punishment in our criminal justice system.

In the case, the defendant, Daryl Atkins, was charged with and found guilty of abduction, armed robbery, and capital murder, and he was subsequently sentenced to death.[3] In the penalty phase of the initial trial, forensic psychologist Dr. Evan Nelson presented evidence to argue that Atkins was mildly mentally retarded.[4] Nelson also cited an IQ test completed by Atkins in which he received a score of 59.[5] These findings, however, did little to sway the jury on Atkins’s culpability or mental fitness, and it found Atkins guilty and sentenced him with the death penalty.

The Atkins case, after appearing before the Supreme Court of Virginia, was granted a writ of certiorari by the United States Supreme Court. Interestingly, Atkins’s overall mental impairment, as first established by Nelson, held little relevance to the Court, as it never actually issued a ruling on Atkins’s mental status.[6] Instead, the facts of Atkins’s, case combined with the general conditions under which his mental fitness was being questioned, created the grounds on which the Court narrowly defined conditions one must meet to be found intellectually disabled and ultimately ineligible for the death penalty.

The Court clarified the three characteristics one must have to constitute an intellectual disability: “subaverage intellectual functioning,” quantified by IQ scores below 70; a lack of communication, self-care, and adaptive skills; and the manifestation of both issues before the age of 18.[7] According to the Court, the existence of these conditions would “not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions” for someone with a mental impairment, but would “diminish their personal culpability.”[8]

The concept of “culpability” in the context of prosecuting mentally impaired individuals is critical, since the culpability of the accused directly affects the severity of the punishment.[9] For those with mental impairments, the Court found that their levels of culpability were near impossible to quantify, leading the majority to conclude that “the lesser culpability of the mentally retarded offender surely does not merit [the death penalty]. Thus, pursuant to our narrowing jurisprudence, which seeks to ensure that only the most deserving of execution are put to death, an exclusion for the mentally retarded is appropriate.”[10]

The three circumstances established in Atkins had limitations, as they let states create different standards of impairment that exempted offenders from capital punishment. Hall v. Florida[11] later helped clarify the standards of what constitutes a mental impairment. However, similarly to Atkins, the case failed to fully address the outstanding complications a plea of intellectual disability may raise in regards to IQ testing and the interpretation of adaptive functioning.[12]

The case concerned petitioner Freddie Lee Hall, who was sentenced to death in 1978 for the murder of a pregnant woman named Karol Hurst. Hall reappeared before the Supreme Court of Florida in 2012 after he filed a claim to be exempt from the death penalty in light of Atkins.[13] The state supreme court dismissed his claim on the basis that he did not qualify as being mentally impaired since Hall had scored 71 on an IQ test, 1 point above the requirement of 70.

The case was brought before the United States Supreme Court on appeal from the Fifth Circuit, and the Court ruled that Florida’s threshold requirement for defining mental incapacity was unconstitutional due to the narrowness of the state’s interpretation and Florida’s inconsistency with medical diagnoses of disabilities. The Court found that “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 would consider other evidence; and it relies on a purportedly scientific measurement of a defendant’s abilities, while refusing to recognize that measurements inherent imprecision.”[14]

Hall advanced protections for those with mental impairments by permitting a more thorough examination of the nonstatuatory, mitigating factors capital defendants could present at trial.[15] The Hall decision also clarified the convoluted conditions for a mental impairment established as a result of Atkins by introducing how the lack of ability to adapt or adjust to “the requirements of daily life” is an additional side of a disability.[16] Lastly, the language used in the majority opinion also made an important distinction in noting the Court’s hereafter use of “intellectual disability” instead of “mental retardation.”

Acknowledging the advances made in disability law and in the usage of capital punishment through cases like Atkins and Hall is imperative. These cases underscored the inhumane retributions, primarily the death penalty, that could be enacted if individuals were unable to meet the rigid, legal guidelines for mental disabilities. However, both Atkins and Hall failed to account for the lack of mental health support systems, thus perpetuating the constant cycle of crime and (thankfully, now, not as cruel) punishment, without reform and rehabilitation, that those with intellectual disabilities experience within our criminal justice system.


[1] 536 U.S. 304 (2002) [hereinafter Atkins].

[2] U.S. Cᴏɴsᴛ. amend. XIII (“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”). See also id. at 321 (“Our independent evaluation of the issue reveals no reason to disagree with the judgment of ‘the legislatures that have recently addressed the matter’ and concluded that death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal. We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty. Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of our ‘evolving standards of decency,’ we therefore conclude that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution ‘places a substantive restriction on the State's power to take the life’ of a mentally retarded offender.”) (quoting Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 405 (1986).

[3] See Atkins v. Commonwealth, 510 S.E.2d 445 (Va. 1999).

[4] See id. at 451–54. See also Atkins, 536 U.S. at 308–09 (“His conclusion was based on interviews with people who knew Atkins, a review of school and court records, and the administration of a standard intelligence test which indicated that Atkins had a full scale IQ of 59.).”

[5] Id.

[6] See generally Atkins, 536 U.S. at 306–21.

[7] See id. at 318.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 319.

[10] Id.

[11] 572 U.S. 701 (2014) [hereinafter Hall].

[12] See Brian K. Cooke et al., Hall v. Florida: Capital Punishment, IQ, and Persons With Intellectual Disabilities, 43 J. Aᴍᴇʀ. Aᴄᴀᴅ. Psʏᴄʜɪᴀᴛʀʏ & Lᴀᴡ 230, 233.

[13] Hall v. Florida, 109 So.3d 704 (Fla. 2012).

[14] Hall, 572 U.S. at 707.

[15] See Cooke et al., supra note 12 at 232–33.

[16] Hall, 572 U.S. at 704.

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