Hall v. Florida

Brief Filed: 12/13
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
Year of Decision: 2014

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.


On May 27, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 majority ruling against the Florida statute setting an IQ score requirement for defendants arguing their intellectual disability should protect them from the death penalty. Twelve years after leaving it to the states to determine when individuals were too intellectually incapacitated to be executed, the Court withdrew some of that discretion.

While states were told that they cannot make an IQ test score anywhere above 70 as permission for an individual's execution, it did say that it was not ruling on whether a state could set the fixed score at 75 or above, and use that alone as the measure. Justice Kennedy's opinion for the majority stated that the Court was not moving the rule of law on executing those who claim intellectual disability very far from where it had left that question twelve years ago in Atkins. However, the opinion described the experience of states across the country, and concluded that it was rare to make anyone eligible for the death penalty based simply on an IQ score above 70. Kennedy was joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor. The ruling did not rule out states' use of IQ test scores as part of the analysis of whether an individual had sufficient intellectual functioning to qualify for the death sentence. However, it stressed that use of such scores must take into account the "inherent" imprecision of such scores. APA's amicus brief was cited multiple times.