Originally published in the Idaho Statesman, June 2014
In last week’s Supreme Court ruling in the case Hall v. Florida, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated for the majority that “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.” And medical experts, psychologists and psychiatrists agree - those with cognitive or intellectual disabilities should not be sentenced to death based solely on an arbitrary number system.
In 2002, the US Supreme Court decided in Atkins v. Virginia that it violated the Constitution to execute a mentally retarded person, but left the definition of “mentally retarded” up to individual states. Death row prisoner, Freddie Hall challenged Florida’s strict IQ score cut-off of 70, arguing that the state should use scientific evidence, not simply a number, to decide whether he was eligible to be sentenced to death. Because IQ scores are inherently imprecise, medical experts agree that a strict cut-off that fails to take into account standard error should not be used.
Last week’s ruling impacts not only cases in Florida but those in other states as well, including Idaho where the death penalty is still legal. Currently, Idaho is among a small contingent of states that uses an IQ cut-off score of 70 to decide who is too intellectually-disabled to execute.
Enter Gerald Pizzuto, a current Idaho death row inmate challenging the State’s IQ score limit. His current verbal IQ test score of 72 allows the State to move forward in their effort to execute this man, a barbaric attempt to institute justice. And throughout his many appeals, the Idaho Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have held that according to Idaho’s current statute, his circumstances do not violate the Eight Amendment’s promise to protection from cruel and unusual punishment.
The Hall’s ruling changes that and permits Mr. Pizzuto and his legal team to resubmit their appeal to the Ninth Circuit for reevaluation, including additional evidence regarding adaptive behaviors, including his personal life and behavior, to be taken into consideration to make the determination of whether he is constitutionally-eligible to be executed. And the ruling also brings with it hope. Hope that Mr. Pizzuto may finally secure a sentence that is both just and asserts accountability, but also respects the standards of decency and basic human rights.
Idaho would be remiss to not institute legislative change to bring our laws in line with the Supreme Court’s mandates. Our current death penalty system falls quite short of fundamental constitutional and human rights guarantees. We have major problems administering the death penalty in a fair manner -- on the front-end in determining eligibility for execution to the back-end concerning executions. Department of Corrections officials have operated in the shadows for many years – keeping the public in the dark about how they obtain their lethal injection supplies and who is supplying them. A new report published by the Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations concluded that the death penalty is more expensive to administer than a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Ever-present questions of innocence due to outdated science and the racial disparities in its application should make the most staunch death penalty supporter queasy.
While Idaho’s road to abolishing the death penalty may be long, advocates can celebrate Tuesday’s landmark Supreme Court ruling ensuring that the death penalty is not used against individuals with intellectual disabilities. No longer can an erroneous indicator be used to draw a line between those killed and those sent to prison for life. Now, Idaho must take action – bring the principles of science and medicine to the death penalty, or face yet another strike against its unconstitutional policy.