Hall v. Florida

Brief Filed: 12/13
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
Year of Decision: Pending

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 132KB)


At issue in the appeal is whether a statutory definition of mental retardation that has a bright-line cutoff requiring an IQ score of 70 or below adequately captures the constitutional imperative that the “mentally retarded” not be executed.

Index Topic

Death Penalty


The defendant in this case, Freddie Lee Hall, was convicted of a capital murder that occurred in 1978 and was sentenced to death. After his original sentence was vacated, Hall was resentenced to death in 1991. At the time, the judge who sentenced Hall noted that he was "mentally retarded" but found that fact to have "unquantifiable" mitigating weight. Following Atkins v. Virginia, the 2002 case that abolished the death penalty for the "mentally retarded," Hall filed a successive habeas petition and an evidentiary hearing was held. Although there was ample evidence supporting Hall's claim — he had been repeatedly diagnosed with mental retardation in the past — because Hall had scored 73 and 80 on the WAIS-R and 71 on the WAIS-III, the trial court held he could not establish the first element of a mental retardation claim. In the decision, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed, interpreting the statute to mean that a score above 70 on the WAIS-III precludes a showing of mental retardation, and rejecting Hall's argument that the standard error of measurement should be taken into account. The court also rejected the argument that a bright-line cutoff score of 70 was contrary to Atkins, reasoning that the Supreme Court had "left the determination" of who should be classified with mental retardation "to the individual states." The court claimed that the Florida statute is consistent with the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic criteria for mental retardation. Two justices dissented, arguing that Hall is plainly mentally retarded and that applying the bright-line cutoff for scores to his case violates the constitutional principles articulated in Atkins.

APA's Position

APA’s brief states that there is unanimous professional consensus that the diagnosis of intellectual disability requires comprehensive assessment and the application of clinical judgment. APA further states that comprehensive assessment requires concurrent analysis of intellectual and adaptive functioning. The existence of concurrent deficits in intellectual and adaptive functioning is central to the rationale of the Atkins decision, and a system for identifying defendants with intellectual disability that does not include analysis of adaptive functioning is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of a diagnostic criteria. The brief asserts that the use of a fixed IQ score cutoff to assess intellectual functioning violates the professional consensus and clinical norms of mental health professions. APA further notes that IQ test scores used to diagnose limitations in intellectual functioning are subject to a standard error of measurement and the interpretation of IQ test scores must take the test’s reliability into account. In conclusion, the brief argues that relying on an IQ score at any level presents a significant risk that individuals with intellectual disability may be executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Instead, the appropriate method of diagnosis in every case is a comprehensive assessment of the individual’s adaptive and general intellectual functioning in order to interpret the IQ score and arrive at an accurate diagnosis.