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Should an IQ Score Mean a Death Sentence?

A new Supreme Court decision on IQ testing could be a matter of life and death

Freddie Lee Hall has been on Florida's Death Row for the past 36 years.

Sentenced to death on June 27, 1978 for a brutal double-murder, the 69 year old Hall has exhausted decades of legal appeals relating to his mental capacity at the time of his crimes. Though the 1978 sentence was later vacated, Hall was re-sentenced to death in 1991. The judge at the time acknowledged that Hall was "mentally retarded" but deemed that to be "unquantifiable" in whether he should be executed. Since the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision bans people diagnosed as intellectually disabled from being executed, Florida, as well as several other U.S. states, establishes the legal cutoff score for a diagnosis of intellectual disability as being an IQ of 70  (70 is two standard deviations below the mean score of 100).  As a result, the use of intelligence testing for inmates facing execution has taken on a lethal importance. In Hall's case, numerous IQ tests administered over the years have yielded scores ranging from 60 to 80 although he has been assigned a score of 71.  

While Florida prosecutors insist that Hall is legally fit to be executed, a new Supreme Court decision has challenged the use of a fixed IQ threshold for the purpose of execution. In a 5-4 legal decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that IQ testing alone is not sufficient to determine a prisoner's mental capacity.  Based on submissions from professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, the Supreme Court justices ruled that the margin of error for IQ scores is too great to allow life-or-death decisions to be made based on test scores alone.  Focusing on the Hall case in particular, the Court has ruled that Florida cannot use IQ as the "final and conclusive" measure of intellectual ability though the ruling is likely to provoke controversy for all states using the fixed IQ threshold.  

In a statement released after the U.S. Supreme Court decision, the American Psychological Association expressed their approval.  “We are pleased that the majority of the court agreed that Florida’s use of a fixed IQ score cutoff to determine a defendant’s intellectual functioning is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how to interpret IQ tests,” said Nathalie Gilfoyle, JD, APA’s general counsel. “The court agreed with the uniform scientific consensus across professional organizations with expertise in testing that intellectual disability cannot be accurately diagnosed without an evaluation of an individual’s adaptive functioning in conjunction with his or her general intellectual functioning and age of onset.”  

As part of the friend-of-the-court brief submitted in the case,  APA pointed out that IQ tests have a standard error of measurement of as much as five points.  For that reason, relying on a fixed threshold could mean a miscarriage of justice since someone with a score just above 70 could actually fall below the threshold.  The brief also argued that a diagnosis of intellectual disability requires a comprehensive assessment looking at adaptive functioning rather than simply relying on a test score. The  APA brief was cited multiple times by the judges making the majority decision.  

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Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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