"Justices Asked to Define 'Mentally Retarded' in Death Cases"
// Sentencing Law and Policy
The title of this post is the headline of this new article by Marcia Coyle in The National Law Journal previewing the biggest SCOTUS capital case of the current Term. Oral argument in the case is less than a month away, and here is how this article begins to set the table in a very interesting and important procedural Eighth Amendment case:
Freddie Lee Hall sits on Florida's death row for the 1978 abduction and murder of a 21-year-old woman who was seven months pregnant. He should not be executed because, he claims, he is "mentally retarded."
Twelve years after the U.S. Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that execution of mentally retarded persons violates the Eighth Amendment, the justices will use Hall's case to examine how states determine who is "intellectually disabled" (now the preferred term for mentally retarded) and whether Florida's test is too narrow. The court will hear arguments in Hall v. Florida on March 3.
Florida and its supporters want the court to hold fast to its language in Atkins giving states "the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction."
"This case turns on whether Atkins truly left any determination to the states or whether, as Hall contends, states are constitutionally bound to vague, constantly evolving — and sometimes contradictory — diagnostic criteria established by organizations committed to expanding Atkins's reach," Florida solicitor general Allen Winsor wrote.
Most states have developed appropriate standards, according to death penalty scholars and some national psychological and disability organizations. However, they and Hall argue the justices need to tell Florida and some other states that their tests ignore generally accepted clinical definitions of mental retardation.
Nothing in Atkins "authorizes the states to narrow the substantive scope of the constitutional right itself by defining mental retardation in a way that excludes defendants who qualify for a diagnosis of mental retardation under accepted clinical standards," said Hall's counsel, Eric Pinkard of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel in Tampa. "Yet that is precisely what Florida has done here."
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