In the disability world, mental retardation is never measured with a simple number on an IQ test. Mental health professionals agree that the test is an inexact tool — with a considerable margin of error — and that life skills and deficits in daily functioning are equally important measures of disability.
But when it comes to deciding who is eligible for execution, the courts often ignore the consensus of the medical world and determine mental retardation based on a single rigid standard: Did the defendant score at or below 70 on every IQ test taken in his lifetime?
The U.S. Supreme Court is now weighing a case from Florida, which asks the justices to decide whether it’s constitutional for a state to set a strict IQ score cutoff for determining whether capital defendants have mental retardation. The court already decided, in 2002, that people with intellectual disabilities are less culpable for their crimes and may not be executed. However, the practice of going strictly by an IQ score has excluded many people with mental disabilities from this protection.
The court’s decision could have serious consequences in North Carolina, because many judges here interpret the law the same way Florida does — by taking the position that anyone who scores above 70 on an IQ test is eligible for execution. In this way, several North Carolina defendants who score just slightly above the cutoff have been kept on death row despite strong evidence of their mental retardation.
For example, Thomas Michael Larry, one of North Carolina’s death row inmates, has scored 69 and 74 on IQ tests. He was also identified in school records as a “slow learner,” failed first and fourth grades, and dropped out of school in sixth grade. A judge found that he had impairments in daily living. Yet, based on a single IQ score of 74, he could not meet North Carolina’s definition of mental retardation.
Medical professionals say that people with mental retardation often score within the range of 65 to 75, and that their scores tend to go up with repeated testing. IQ tests also have at least a five-point margin of error.
Strict IQ cutoffs are not used to determine eligibility for special education services or disability payments. Why should we use a different standard when deciding something as important as who our state has the right to kill?
Larry is also one of several African-Americans on North Carolina’s death row who attended segregated schools. This puts him at a further disadvantage, because those schools often did not have special education programs or licensed psychologists that identified and tested children with learning disabilities. Larry’s school, like many segregated black schools, didn’t have the resources for IQ testing, leaving Larry without the test scores that would have proven his disability.
Most importantly, this restrictive definition of mental retardation clearly goes against the spirit of the law that protects the mentally disabled from execution. The death penalty is intended to punish only the most culpable offenders for the most severe crimes. Both the North Carolina courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have affirmed that serious mental retardation makes people less culpable for their actions, and that they should not receive the ultimate punishment.
Our state should jettison the bright-line IQ standard and stop running the risk of an unjust and unconstitutional execution.