The Supreme Court is set to review the case of Freddie Lee Hall, a mentally retarded man in Florida who was sentenced to death for participating in a rape, robbery, and two murders. They tackle two main questions: How high an IQ should be necessary for capital punishment? And is IQ measurement even precise enough to be used in cases like this?
The real answer to ethical quandaries like this is: the death penalty should be abolished. That would render these discussions moot. The death penalty, however, is not going to be abolished by the Supreme Court in the case of Freddie Lee Hall. What could happen, though, is an incremental step towards decency.
The Florida Supreme Court has affirmed Hall's death sentence. The US Supreme Court now faces a decision as to what to tell states about how to interpret the ban on executing "mentally retarded" people, which was instituted a decade ago. Here is where the current standard stands, via the New York Times:
The Atkins decision gave states substantial latitude in how to carry it out and gave only general guidance. It said a finding of mental retardation requires proof of three things: “subaverage intellectual functioning,” meaning low IQ scores; a lack of fundamental social and practical skills; and the presence of both conditions before age 18. The court said IQ scores under “approximately 70” typically indicate retardation.
A life and death standard that invokes IQ scores under "approximately 70" is horribly problematic, given the fact that IQ scores in general are all very approximate in the first place. In the case of Freddie Lee Hall, prosecutors and defense attorneys are arguing over whether his IQ is closer to 60, or to 80. That would seem to miss the point. This would seem to be more pertinent, via the Wall Street Journal:
In the Supreme Court petition, Mr. Hall's attorneys write that "the human race has not yet developed a test for mental retardation that is like a blood pressure machine, hooked up to a defendant's arm with a gauge that reads R for retarded, N for not retarded."
IQ is not an exact science, and IQ scores are not exact measurements. To draw a numerical line in the sand—71, kill them, 69, let them live!—is to impart a false sense of certainty to an inherently uncertain claim. To use a numerical IQ score as a cutoff line for executions is the act of the law seeking to dodge a larger moral judgment by hiding behind a subjective judgment call by a doctor. It would be more honest for the court to say that if there is any reasonable suspicion that an inmate is mentally retarded, they cannot be executed. Life in prison is hardly getting off easy. And it is always better to err on the side of caution when making a decision that can never be reversed.