The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a death-penalty case this week that what’s close enough for government work is not close enough for justice. The ruling may dismay supporters of capital punishment, but it may have done them a favor.
If public opinion is ever shocked into demanding an end to capital punishment, it will be because an obvious injustice has been done. Executing killers who are retarded or mentally ill fits that bill.
Freddie Lee Hall, who was convicted in Florida of murder and sentenced to death, is such a person. Evidence in school and court records indicate he is severely mentally retarded.
His IQ has been variously measured at 71 and 80. That’s a problem, because in 2002, the Supreme Court prohibited the execution of people with mental disabilities, leaving states with general guidelines.
That opinion said IQ scores less than “approximately 70” typically indicate disability. Florida’s top court, citing a state law, took 70 and below as a hard cutoff and allowed no other evidence of mental disability. That rigidity was an opening for Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in his 5-to-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. It ignored another consideration, he added: “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”
Florida, and as many as eight other states that take a similar approach, now will have to consider more factors and be more careful about whom they execute. That’s humane and reasonable.
This killer committed a heinous crime. In 1978, Hall and an accomplice kidnapped a 21-year-old pregnant newlywed; they beat, raped, and shot her. They later killed a sheriff’s deputy.
But the death penalty is about holding criminals accountable, not just seeking revenge. Civilized society has long held that some people — children and insane and mentally disabled offenders — do not necessarily possess the intelligence and moral sense to distinguish between right and wrong. They also have difficulty contributing to their own defense.
A just society will calibrate their punishments carefully. In this case, that is what the high court majority has done.