Supreme Court invalidates Virginia’s use of IQ test in administering death penalty

courts-newToday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that states cannot rely on a rigid IQ score of 70 to determine whether an individual may be executed.

Commenting on the ruling, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, said: “Today’s ruling affirms what we said in our report on the death penalty more than ten years ago, what we have argued since the landmark case of Adkins v. Virginia that prohibited the execution of people with intellectual disabilities, and what the American Bar Association reported last summer — Virginia’s standard for determining intellectual disability in death penalty cases could allow a person to be executed who does not, in fact, have the intellectual capacity to understand the punishment or the reason why he or she is to be put to death. That makes it unconstitutional.”

In Hall, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the “inherent error in IQ testing” that it originally noted in Adkins and agreed with “medical experts that, when a defendant’s IQ test score falls within the test’s acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits.” Current Virginia law is out of compliance with the Court’s decision – the Commonwealth, like Florida, relies on a rigid, maximum IQ score of 70 to determine eligibility for the death penalty, and does not allow for consideration of measurement errors.

“In addition to making clear that Virginia’s death penalty statute is unconstitutional on its face, today’s decision highlights the inherent arbitrariness of Virginia’s capital punishment system,” said Gastañaga. “Currently, an individual can be executed in Virginia if they have an IQ score of 71, but not 70, even though the margin of error in the IQ test is acknowledged to be greater than 1. There is no rational way to explain such an arbitrary system, especially one where a single point could determine whether you can be executed regardless of your actual ability to understand the punishment or the process for administering it.”

“It’s past time for the General Assembly to stop waiting for direction from the U.S. Supreme Court before addressing the serious flaws in our capital punishment system,” said Gastañaga. “Unfortunately, during the 2014 General Assembly session, the legislature chose to spend its time debating what method of execution should be used to carry out the punishment regardless of whether it is being fairly or legally applied. If the legislature is not willing to repeal the death penalty, it must act affirmatively and responsibly to ensure that the process of administering this ultimate sanction is fair and equally applied to all. The Constitution and common decency require no less,” Gastañaga concluded.