The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Monday on the legal standard for assessing whether an individual is mentally retarded in order to determine that person's eligibility for the death penalty. In Hall v. Florida [transcript, PDF; JURIST report] the court will decide "whether the Florida scheme for identifying mentally retarded defendants in capital cases violates Atkins v. Virginia [text, PDF]," a case in which the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to execute mentally retarded individuals. Florida currently employs a cut-off scheme in which anyone who tests below a certain number on an IQ test is found to be mentally retarded and thus exempt from execution. Petitioner, Freddie Lee Hall, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1978, and his IQ test score was above Florida's cutoff. The judgment against Hall was later affirmed [opinion] by the Florida Supreme Court [official website].
The institution of the death penalty in the US has been under scrutiny recently. Last month Washington Governor Jay Inslee [official website] announced a moratorium on executions [JURIST report] in the state. Earlier in February Florida's highest court ordered [JURIST report] an evidentiary hearing to determine if the sedative midazolam should remain in the state's lethal injection procedure. Also in February a judge for the US District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana [official website] declared that the scheduled execution of 70-year-old Christopher Sepulvado by lethal injection would be delayed [JURIST report] for 90 days to permit time to expand the state's execution protocol to include a new two-drug mixture. The review of lethal injection procedures in a number of states stems from the prolonged execution [JURIST report] of convicted murderer Dennis McGuire in January. In December, the Supreme Court in White v. Woodall [transcript, PDF] heard arguments [JURIST report] on jury instructions in a death penalty case in which the defendant chose not to testify and requested, and was denied, that the jury be instructed to not draw adverse inferences from his decision not to testify. JURIST Guest Columnist Laura Kagel explores the case of Warren Lee Hill, Jr. and the tensions between mental disability and execution [JURIST op-ed] in the state of Georgia.