ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A University of New Mexico law professor and nine of his students played a pivotal role in Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a Florida law that set a minimum IQ of 70 as a benchmark in determining whether a convicted murderer can be executed.
Distinguished Professor Jim Ellis of the UNM School of Law, three other faculty members and the student volunteers prepared a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Freddie Lee Hall in Hall vs. Florida, which was argued before the high court in March. At issue was whether the Florida law's refusal to accept the scientific error of measurement in IQ testing might lead to the execution of intellectually disabled individuals convicted of murder.
After the decision was announced, Ellis said the legal team is “very gratified that the court endorsed the position we had taken on behalf of the national disability organizations that all evidence needs to be considered.”
The high court sent the case back to state courts to determine again Hall's level of intellectual deficiency. The justices noted his inability to function socially and the “horrible” childhood he had suffered through, Ellis said.
Hall and an accomplice were convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering a seven-months pregnant woman in 1978. Afterward, the two went to rob a convenience store, where they killed a deputy sheriff who responded. Hall was sentenced to death. Everyone involved in the case conceded the crime was terrible and that Hall should be punished, Ellis said. “The only question is, 'Should his intellectual disability prevent him from being executed?'”
The case centered on whether strict standards like Florida's provide the protection mandated by an earlier Supreme Court ruling, Atkins vs. Virginia – a case Ellis argued before the court and won. In that case, the court found it was unconstitutional to execute mentally disabled people, but left open the question of how to make such a determination.
The UNM brief, cited in the 5-4 ruling, represents five professional and advocacy groups in the fields of intellectual disability and disability rights.
“Part of this case hinges on fairly esoteric information, such as details about correct scoring in psychological testing, which we explained in our brief,” said Ann Delpha, a Law School fellow and staff attorney who participated in writing the brief. It outlines the definition of mental retardation, examines the role of IQ testing, clarifies the role of deficits in adaptive functioning, and examines the measurement of error in determining IQ.
Delpha also coordinated the roles of students Lynne Canning, Emily Carey, Kylie Cook, Martin Juarez, Jason Kerkmans, Brian Moore, Kari Olson, Van Snow and Xochitl Liana Torres.
The team planned, researched, organized, wrote and edited the brief. The students and faculty members helped with legal and psychological research, records review and checking of legal citations. The students – Ellis described their role as “crucial” – spent hours scrutinizing each word in the brief.
In addition to students, Professors Steven Homer, April Land and Carol Suzuki helped draw up the brief and served as co-counsel with Ellis in representing the disability organizations.
Although the Florida Supreme Court noted Hall had been “mentally retarded his entire life,” it upheld the sentence because his average IQ score was above 70. His scores had ranged from the 60s to low 70s, but one outlier score of 80 made a crucial difference.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “Intellectual incapacity is a condition, not a number.”