Hall v. Florida

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LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Hall v. Florida.


Does Florida’s use of a cutoff IQ to establish mental retardation violate Atkins v. Virginia’s ruling that executing mentally retarded criminals violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against “cruel and unusual” punishment?

Oral argument: 
March 3, 2014
Court below: 

The state of Florida sentenced Freddie Lee Hall to death on September 9, 1982 for murdering Karol Hurst. Hall challenged his sentence multiple times, and the Florida state courts vacated and reinstated the sentence each time. During one resentencing trial, the court found Hall to be mentally retarded. At an evidentiary hearing to determine his mental competence, the court found that Hall’s IQ exceeded the minimum cut-off for mental retardation in Florida. Hall’s most recent challenge therefore involves the 2002 Supreme Court decision in Atkins v. Virginia, which held that executing mentally retarded criminals violates their Eighth Amendment right against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Hall argues that Florida’s measure of mental retardation, which uses an IQ score cutoff, violates Atkins, and that Atkins prohibits Florida from executing him. Florida argues that the state’s definition of mental retardation complies with Atkins. In turn, the state asserts that under its definition of mental retardation, Hall can be executed. This case could determine whether Florida can execute Hall and, more broadly, states’ ability to establish standards for mental retardation based on IQ testing.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether the Florida scheme for identifying mentally retarded defendants in capital cases violates Atkins v. Virginia.



On September 9, 1982, the governor of Florida signed Freddie Lee Hall's death warrant for the murder of Karol Hurst, after Hall was tried and convicted in Putnam County and the Florida Supreme Court upheld the conviction. After his appeals to the Florida state courts failed, Hall filed an appeal in federal court. The district court denied Hall a hearing. Hall then appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which determined that Hall was entitled to a hearing regarding Hall’s partial absence from the original trial and whether he could still bring a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel.

The district court determined that Hall had been absent only during non-critical stages of the trial and that Hall could not bring an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Hall’s next procedural challenge relied on a 1987 ruling from the United States Supreme Court, Hitchcock v. Dugger, requiring that a judge and jury review all mitigating factors. The Florida Supreme Court determined that any error in this case was harmless; therefore, Hall was not entitled to a new sentencing hearing. The governor then signed Hall’s second death warrant on September 20, 1988.

Following the second death warrant, Hall again challenged his sentence relying on Hitchcock. This time, when the case reached the Florida Supreme Court, the court determined that there were significant facts which were not on the court record and had not been considered previously. As a result, the Florida Supreme Court vacated Hall’s sentence and granted him a new sentencing trial. At the resentencing hearing, the court found Hall to be mentally retarded, a legal standard of mental capacity used to determine a defendant’s culpability. Even though the trial court found that Hall’s mental retardation was a mitigating factor, the court nonetheless condemned Hall to death after weighing all applicable factors. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the decision.

In 2004, Hall again tried to overturn his sentence, this time relying on a Florida procedure, Florida Statute Section 921.137, which the state established in response to a 2002 United States Supreme Court ruling, Atkins v. Virginia. Atkins made it unconstitutional to execute a defendant who is declared mentally retarded. Hall filed a motion relying on a prior determination that he was mentally retarded, but that motion was denied on March 27, 2008. The court then held an evidentiary hearing in December of 2009 to determine if Hall was mentally retarded. At the evidentiary hearing, Hall presented several witnesses who testified to Hall’s problems with reading, writing, and self-care as a child. Doctors also testified to Hall’s scores of 73, 71, and 80 on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. Because these scores were above the mental retardation cutoff of 70 used in Florida, the court denied Hall’s motion to vacate the death sentence. Hall appealed the decision to the Florida Supreme Court.

On December 20, 2012, the Florida Supreme Court denied Hall’s claim that the trial court had misapplied the Atkins standards in establishing that Hall was not exempt from the death penalty based on his IQ test scores. Hall petitioned for a writ of certiorari on June 6, 2013 and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on October 21, 2013.



This case examines whether Florida’s cutoff of an IQ of 70 for determining mental retardation is permissible under Atkins. Hall argues that Florida’s adoption of an IQ cutoff does not incorporate clinical standards necessary to accurately determine mental capacity, and thus fails to afford Hall necessary legal protections against the death penalty. Florida counters that the state retains discretion in how it implements Atkins, and that they have properly applied those procedures to Hall.


In support of Hall, the American Psychological Association (“APA”) argues that there is general consensus among the medical community that a correct diagnosis of mental retardation requires an assessment of three criteria: general intellectual functioning, adaptive functioning, and age of onset. The APA asserts that recent trends have moved away from reliance on IQ testing in favor of clinical assessments. Because of the importance of a comprehensive assessment of these three criteria, the APA contends that a standardized IQ test score cutoff provides an incomplete measure of mental disability. According to the APA, this is because an IQ test has a “standard error of measurement” (“SEM”) approximately five points within a person’s actual IQ score, and a bright line test does not assess this range of scores. Furthermore, the APA argues that clinical assessment of factors such as school records and behavior rating scales, in addition to the IQ test, is necessary to indicate the degree and nature of intellectual impairment. The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (“AAIDD”) also stresses the importance of a clinical interpretation of the IQ test to assess mental capacity.

The Attorneys General of ten states (“Attorneys General”) support Florida’s position argue that its standards for measuring mental retardation have never differed from the national norm. These Attorneys General argue that many states utilize a cutoff of 70 on the IQ test. According to Florida, the Supreme Court approved of these IQ-based statutes because most of the ten state statutes cited in Atkins used 70 as the IQ cutoff point. The Attorneys General and other states also argue that these states did not incorporate the SEM range in their criteria. Furthermore, the states argue that clinical definitions of mental retardation provide an inconsistent framework because they change rapidly. Florida also argues that the AAIDD’s decreased reliance on IQ tests increases dependence on clinical diagnosis, which in turn reduces the reliability and precision of a mental diagnosis. Florida also contends that adapting the SEM range of measurement would mean that there would never be a conclusive bar for the state to establish mental retardation.


The American Bar Association ("ABA") argues that the lack of uniform measures of mental retardation imposes risks on defendants who face the death penalty in one state while he could have been exonerated in another. The ABA contends that the threat of unfairness based on the inconsistency of mental retardation definitions undermines the procedural protections for mentally retarded defendants. For this reason, the AAIDD argues that state procedures must be consistent with clinical procedures to ensure fair assessment of defendants in state courts.

Florida argues that states have always determined standards for deciding mental retardation and that the Court should trust states to establish such standards. Moreover, the Attorneys General contend that state standards that have adapted to various medical concepts often do not adhere to clinical definitions. Florida contends that courts have deferred to these state definitions rather than depending upon medical consensus. Accordingly, Florida argues that federal courts should not force states to adhere to a universal definition when a lack of consensus among medical professionals and shifting standards demonstrate that such a definition does not exist. Florida also argues that accepting new standards based on SEM or a clinical diagnosis would destabilize the state by encouraging challenges to earlier state rulings that had not incorporated the SEM.



In Atkins v. Virginia, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibited the execution of mentally retarded persons. The Court reasoned that the death penalty would be an “excessive punishment” because mentally retarded persons have deficiencies that limit their personal culpability for their actions.

The Florida Supreme Court has interpreted Florida Statute § 921.137(1) as providing a legal definition of mental retardation – a “firm IQ cutoff of 70.”

Hall argues that the Florida Supreme Court’s reading of §921.1369(1) violates the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins. Meanwhile, Florida argues that the Florida Supreme Court’s interpretation of the statute is consistent with the principles enunciated in Atkins.


Hall argues that the Court in Atkins relied on definitions of mental retardation promulgated by the AAIDD and APA. Hall notes that in Atkins the Supreme Court cited AAIDD and APA definitions for mental retardation that did not specify a rigid IQ cutoff for diagnosis. Furthermore, Hall argues that the Court adopted the AAIDD and APA’s more flexible standard, which defined mental retardation as occurring in people with an IQ of “approximately 70” or “between 70 and 75 or lower.”

Florida argues that the Court in Atkins does not require states to use the AAIDD or APA definitions of mental retardation. Instead, Florida argues that the Court relied on the national consensus among state laws prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded persons at the time of the opinion, and that the Court explicitly named Florida law as part of the national consensus. While the states that followed the national consensus relied on a three-part framework that “generally conformed with the clinical definitions” of mental retardation, Florida argues that there was no agreement on the methods by which the framework would be applied. Florida argues that at the time Atkins was decided there was no consensus among the states about whether to impose an IQ cutoff.

Hall argues that states should not use strict IQ scores cutoffs because IQ scores contain a degree of error and lack precision. Hall also argues against the use of strict IQ scores because IQ scores are not absolute but are measured by comparing the mental abilities of members of the population. Hall asserts that because IQ scores are not perfect, clinical judgment in interpreting the IQ test scores is necessary. Moreover, Hall contends that IQ cutoffs cause some defendants with mental retardation to be denied Atkins protection because of the error inherent in IQ tests. Hall argues that the more flexible approach would be consistent with the practice of other states, as well as definitions of mental retardation within Florida’s administrative regulation codes.

Florida argues that the wholesale adoption of AAIDD or APA definitions of mental retardation in state law regarding capital punishment would be improper. Florida argues that the definition of mental retardation differs in the medical context from the legal context. Florida argues that the medical context has the purposes of providing treatment, while in criminal law it has the dual purposes of retribution and deterrence from breaking the law. Florida also argues that the AAIDD and APA definitions of mental retardation have been in constant flux, and the law needs a static definition for effective implementation.


Florida argues that its IQ of 70 rule was the result of attorneys and community groups engaging in principled and extended deliberation. Florida asserts that the Court has recognized the IQ of 70 as a threshold score for mental retardation in Atkins, City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., Inc., Penry v. Lynaugh, and other cases. Florida asserts that even Hall does not oppose the use of an IQ of 70 as a measuring stick, and that this standard conforms with Atkins’s guidelines on defining mental retardation. Florida also points out that Florida and other states have an important interest in ensuring the effective operation of its criminal law system. Capital offenders often raise the defense of mental retardation, and Florida argues that it must institute a bright line rule to avoid the over-diagnosis of capital offenders.

Hall argues that Florida’s implementation of its statutory scheme violates the Eighth Amendment protections recognized in Atkins. Hall argues that Florida’s strict rule is inconsistent with the clinical definition that the Court adopted in Atkins. Hall argues that Atkins follows the AAIDD and APA definitions of mental retardation, where both definitions account for the standard error of measurement (“SEM”). Hall points out that Florida’s definition does not include SEM. Hall argues that excluding consideration of the SEM would preclude many persons who are mentally retarded from the constitutional protection to which they are entitled.


Hall argues that Atkins required states to create proper procedures for determining when a defendant actually is mentally retarded. Thus, Hall argues that Atkins recognizes states’ discretion in implementing death penalty procedures, but not in altering the substance of the definition stated in Atkins. Hall argues that the rationale underlying an earlier pair of cases addressing the definition of insanity is consistent with the Court’s intention concerning the definition of mental retardation. In Ford v. Wainwright the Court defined insanity, and in Panetti v. Quarterman the Court stated that a narrow definition of insanity used by the Fifth Circuit was contrary to state interests. Hall argues that the Florida Supreme Court, like the Fifth Circuit in Panetti, used a definition of mental retardation that too narrowly affords protection, and also puts the principles underlying the Court’s rule in Atkins at risk.

Florida argues that states are not limited to making procedural determinations. Florida points to the Court’s opinion in Bobby v. Bies, where the Court indicated that it left the substantive definition of mental retardation to the states. Florida also argues that Hall confuses the holding of Panetti: Hall states that Panetti only set a constitutional floor regarding the execution of insane persons, but it did not impose a substantive definition of insanity. Likewise, Florida argues that Atkins did not endorse the AAIDD or APA’s definition, nor any other substantive definition, but left it to the states to decide.


Hall argues that under clinical standards, both parties agree Hall is mentally retarded. Hall argues that the evidence of his mental retardation was clear to his family and was evident in his school records from a young age. Hall argues that throughout his adult life, he was unable to perform unskilled labor and displayed understanding equivalent to that of a child. Hall further points out that many of his IQ tests clustered in the high 60’s or low 70’s, which would have prompted clinicians to administer more precise tests. Moreover, Hall asserts that the Court should consider clinicians’ analysis that Hall demonstrates the sort of adaptive deficits that caused the Supreme Court to declare execution a disproportionate punishment in Atkins.

Florida counters that the evidence at trial supported the conclusion that Hall is not mentally retarded. Florida argues that Hall committed a murder as part of a multi-step scheme to rob a grocery store, and that Hall took various steps to carefully cover his crime. Florida therefore contends that this evidence undermines Hall’s argument that he meets the adaptive functioning element of mental retardation. Florida also points to a number of IQ tests where Hall scored more than 70, and argues that much of the evidence for Hall’s behavior comes from sources like difficult childhood and poverty, but not mental retardation.



The Court will clarify its holding in Atkins regarding the category of people who fall under the Eighth Amendment’s exclusion from capital punishment for persons with mental retardation. Freddie Lee Hall argues that Florida’s definition of mental retardation violates the principles set forth in Atkins by using a rigid IQ of 70 or below standard. However, Florida argues that its rule is consistent with the principles in Atkins and is within the discretion afforded to states over the death penalty. The Court’s decision may affect the amount of discretion afforded to states in determining who is excluded from the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment. The Court could also provide an avenue to a different sentence for Hall and other defendants who assert that they have mental retardation.


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