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By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court put a new and slightly expanded limit on the death penalty Tuesday, ruling that defendants whose IQ scores are near 70 should be spared because of their “intellectual disability.”

In a 5-4 decision, the court rejected the “rigid rule” set by Florida and several other states that deny leniency to a convicted murderer who scores at least 70 on an IQ test.

“Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. “Courts must recognize, as does the medical community, that the IQ test is imprecise. … In using these scores to assess a defendant’s eligibility for the death penalty, a state must afford these test scores that same studied skepticism that those who design and use the tests do, and understand that an IQ test score represents a range rather than a fixed number.”

The high court abolished the death penalty in 2002 for those who are “mentally retarded,” but at the time, it did not set a precise rule for defining who qualified. Its opinion cited an IQ score of 70 as an understood cut-off point so that those who scored below would be spared.

Since then, several states, including Florida, Virginia, Alabama and Kentucky, have decided to disqualify any inmate who had at least one IQ score of 70 or above. Beyond those, Arizona, Delaware, Kansas, North Carolina and Washington have also referred to a 70 score as a “bright-line cutoff,” Kennedy said.

In Tuesday’s opinion, Kennedy and the court said state officials should not “view a single factor as dispositive” and should consider the inmate’s “adaptive functioning” in society.

The ruling set aside the death penalty handed down against Freddie Lee Hall for two murders in Florida in 1978. He had been described as “psychotic, mentally retarded and brain damaged” at the time of his conviction, but he scored 71 on a single IQ test.

Kennedy’s opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

OZinOH via Flickr

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