Mental Retardation

Supreme Court to Examine Florida's Narrow Standard for Mental Retardation

On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Hall v. Florida, a case addressing the strict standard for intellectual disability that Florida uses to determine if inmates are exempt from execution. Under the Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, individuals with intellectual disabilities (mental retardation) are constitutionally barred from receiving the death penalty. The decision "le[ft] to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction," resulting in various standards for determining intellectual disabilities across the states. Unlike almost all other states, Florida rigidly requires an IQ of 70 or below to demonstrate mental retardation, with no allowance for the test's margin of error. Freddie Hall, the death-row petitioner in this case, was first diagnosed with intellecutal disabilities in elementary school. Prior to the Atkins, a Florida court determined that “Freddie Lee Hall has been mentally retarded his entire life.” Despite these findings, Hall is still facing execution. Cornell Law Professor John Blume said, while the issue is limited, the case is important, "to make clear that states cannot narrow a categorical ban created by the Supreme Court intended to protect a vulnerable group from wrongful execution."

Upcoming Death Penalty Events in 2014

As the new year begins, there are several notable events related to the death penalty likely to occur in the next few months. The first execution of the year is scheduled for January 7 in Florida. The execution of Askari Muhammad had originally been scheduled for December 3, 2013, but was stayed due to a challenge to the state's new execution protocol. The Florida Supreme Court approved the new protocol, and the execution was rescheduled, though legal challenges are continuing in federal court. Ohio has scheduled the execution of Dennis McGuire for January 16, and the state plans to use a lethal injection protocol never tried before in any state. Ohio will use midazolam and hydromorphone, drugs formerly listed in the state's backup procedure. This latest change in Ohio was caused by a shortage of the drug pentobarbital, after restrictions on its use were imposed by its European manufacturer. On January 22, Texas is scheduled to execute Edgar Tamayo, a Mexican citizen who was denied consular access at the time of his arrest, in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Objections to the execution have been raised by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and by numerous other governments. On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Hall v. Florida, a challenge to Florida's strict procedure for determining intellectual disability in capital cases. The Court previously ruled that intellectually disabled defendants are barred from execution.

INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY: Determination of Mental Retardation in Florida and Georgia Under Review

On October 21, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a new case, Hall v. Florida (No. 12-10882), to determine whether the Florida Supreme Court properly upheld the death sentence of a man whose IQ is just above the state's standard for mental retardation. According to the state's law, defendants with an IQ above 70 cannot be considered intellectually disabled, even though most states use a broader definition and there is a margin of error in such IQ tests. Freddie Lee Hall's scores on three IQ tests ranged from 71 to 80. A state judge had previously found Hall to be mentally disabled, but the ruling took place before the state passed a law setting the IQ limit. The case will be argued later in the Supreme Court's term. In Georgia, a House committee will hold an out-of-session meeting to examine the state's strict standard for determining mental retardation in capital cases. Defendants are required to prove intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt, the strictest burden of proof in the nation.

SUPREME COURT: High Court Declines to Review Georgia's Unusual Burden for Proving Mental Retardation

On the opening day of the U.S. Supreme Court's new term, the Justices announced they would not review the case of Warren Hill, a death row inmate in Georgia with multiple findings of intellectual disability. Hill petitioned the Court after three mental health experts, who initially said he was not mentally disabled, changed their assessment. The execution of inmates with mental retardation was ruled unconstitutional in 2002, but Georgia has the strictest standard in the nation for proving this mental disability--proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Brian Kammer, a lawyer for Hill, said, “Mr. Hill has been procedurally barred from proving his exemption from capital punishment, which is why he brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, in the hopes that the court would ensure that the evidence of his intellectual disability would be heard. It is tragic that our highest court has failed to enforce its own command that persons with mental retardation are categorically ineligible for the death penalty." Hill maintained he has met Georgia's exacting standard because all mental health experts who have tested him concur in his disability.

STUDIES: ABA Criticizes Texas Death Penalty in Latest Report

On September 18, the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Due Process Review Project released its latest report, focusing on the fairness and accuracy of Texas’s death penalty system. The report found: “In many areas, Texas appears out of step with better practices implemented in other capital jurisdictions, fails to rely upon scientifically reliable methods and processes in the administration of the death penalty, and provides the public with inadequate information to understand and evaluate capital punishment in the state.” (Exec. Sum.) The assessment made several recommendations to help prevent wrongful convictions and improve due process, including requiring the indefinite preservation of biological evidence in violent crimes, abandoning the law's emphasis on predicting the “future dangerousness” of the defendant in deciding death sentences, and enacting appropriate statutes to deal with capital defendants with intellectual disabilities and severe mental illness. The report commended Texas on recent improvements to their justice system such as better lineup procedures, disclosure of police reports to the defense, and the establishment of two defender offices to provide capital representation throughout the state. The assessment team included Professor Jennifer Laurin from the University of Texas School of Law (Chair) and former Texas Governor Mark White.

STUDIES: American Bar Association Releases Assessment of Virginia Death Penalty

On September 5, the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Due Process Review Project released its latest report, focusing on the fairness and accuracy of Virginia's death penalty system. The assessment recommended changes to the way the state handles defendants with mental retardation and severe mental illness. It also recommended requiring prosecutors to disclose additional information about testifying witnesses and allowing prosecutors to withdraw the death penalty even after charging a defendant with capital murder. The report was critical of the state's practice of setting an execution date before all appeals are complete because it "effectively provides less due process to those under a death sentence than that which is afforded to non-capital inmates." The report praised recent improvements in documenting police procedures for eyewitness identification and accreditation of crime laboratories, but recommended additional reforms. The assessment found the state to be not in compliance or only in partial compliance with many of the ABA's protocols for the death penalty. The assessment team included Mark Earley, the former Attorney General of Virginia, John Douglass (Chair), the Dean Emeritus of the University of Richmond Law School, and other leaders from the judicial and legislative communities.

Repeated Execution Dates Called Psychological Torture

According to some experts, the process of repeatedly submitting a person to imminent execution is a form of psychological torture that should be banned. The Center for Constitutional Rights has said that “the intense strain of repeatedly coming within hours or days of execution” is torture. Citing the case of Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia in 2011 after repeated execution dates and stays, the Center remarked, “Is there any significant difference between mock executions, long recognized as torture by the international community, and Mr. Davis’s last-minute brush with death ...?” Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School professor, said that the terror of imminent executions is more difficult for someone like Warren Hill, who is mentally retarded and has had a series of execution dates, also in Georgia. Grassian said, “People with mental retardation struggle with the ability to think abstractly. They have very powerful feelings but because they have fewer cognitive strengths they are less able to manage those feelings than others are.” Hill came within hours of execution four times. At one time, he ate his last meal and said his goodbyes before his execution was stayed, ninety minutes before the scheduled time. More recently, Hill was already sedated and strapped to the gurney when his execution was stopped with just minutes to spare.

The Writ of Habeas Corpus and the Warren Hill Case

UPDATE: Warren Hill was granted a stay of execution by a Georgia court just hours before his scheduled execution on July 15. A hearing is scheduled for July 18 to consider challenges to a new state law that shields the identity of the lethal injection drug's manufacturer and the prescribing physician from the public. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 15, 2013).

As a petition on behalf of Georgia death row inmate Warren Hill awaits consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, the role of habeas corpus in protecting defendants' fundamental rights has assumed greater importance. A recent article by Lincoln Caplan in the American Prospect explores the significance of the "Great Writ." This guarantee of constitutional protections allows federal courts to determine whether an inmate is being held in violation of the Constitution or other laws, and has been used to challenge death sentences that may have been unlawful. In 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was passed by the U.S. Congress, imposing a time limit on filing such petitions and generally allowing only one such petition. Hill's recent appeal containing clear proof of his mental retardation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit was denied because the court said it was a second petition and could only be considered if it related to his innocence, rather than his death sentence. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote, “The perverse consequence of such an application of AEDPA is that a federal court must acquiesce to, even condone, a state’s insistence on carrying out the unconstitutional execution of a mentally retarded person.” Hill is scheduled to be executed on July 15 unless the Supreme Court intervenes.

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