Advocates for prisoners and the disabled are calling a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued Tuesday as one of the most important for their cause since 2002 – and one that could have immediate ramifications for Georgia’s death penalty.
In 2002 the court made it clear in a Virginia case that no state may execute the intellectually disabled. Tuesday’s ruling in a Florida case picks up where Atkins v. Virginia left off, making it a little clearer who counts as intellectually disabled.
For the first time, the justices said that a state has to consider more than an arbitrary IQ cut-off. Florida has, until now, refused to review any evidence about a defendant’s purported intellectual disability unless she/he scored 70 or below on an IQ test.
But for advocates of prisoner’s rights, including Mercer University law professor Sarah Gerwig, the Florida decision is also a breakthrough in the way the justices discuss the topic of intellectual disability itself.
“In Atkins v. Virginia, the terminology they used was uniformly ‘mental retardation.’ And since then, our understanding of intellectual disability has evolved to the point that that terminology is no longer socially acceptable,” she said.
In contrast, Tuesday’s opinion favors the term “intellectual disability,” and that shift is “emblematic of a deeper understanding of the issue,” Gerwig said.
The Florida case could alter the fate of Warren Lee Hill, a Georgia death row inmate who faces execution despite the fact that all seven experts who have evaluated him believe he is intellectually disabled.
“Gosh, I really hope this is helpful for Warren Hill,” Gerwig said, though Georgia’s law is considerably different than Florida’s.
“Georgia’s problem is not this arbitrary cut-off, but our high, high burden of proof. The intellectually disabled defendant has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is too disabled to be executed,” she said.
Although the Georgia procedure is different, Gerwig hopes that Hill’s defense team will be able to draw compelling analogies between Florida’s strict cut-off and Georgia’s strict burden of proof.
“This is a question of human dignity,” Gerwig said, echoing language in Tuesday’s Supreme Court opinion. “Really there’s no penological interest in executing someone who may or may not have fully understood the consequences of their actions.”