11/1/2010

By George Chipev

SCOTUSblog recently posted the petitions for certiorari for the October 15, 2010, conference.  Hall v. Thaler(http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/hall-v-thaler/) is a capital case wherein a man sentenced to execution for capital murder is challenging the determination that he is not shielded from the death penalty despite having an IQ below seventy and substantial adaptive limitations that satisfy the clinical definition of mental retardation.  Hall argues that even if the retardation was caused, in part, by “environmental” factors, he was in the scope of Atkins v. Virginia, which bars execution of the mentally retarded, and he further contends that Texas’ more subjective approach to assessing adaptive limitations violates Atkins by departing from clinic standards (namely, the clinic definitions of retardation from the American Psychiatric Association and the American Association on Mental Retardation).

 

Hall’s IQ was initially measured at 67.  While the defense expert said he was mildly mentally retarded, the state’s expert at sentencing declined to give a definitive answer.  Hall lived in twelve places before his 18th birthday, his mother had numerous sexual partners, and his home was characterized by violence and drug abuse.  A psychologist diagnosed him as mentally retarded, and teachers and former attorneys described his poor performance and understanding of basic concepts.  Even the state’s expert eventually opined that Hall had adaptive limitations with regard to home, school, and work, and that there was no way to separate out deficits caused by low intelligence from those caused by a difficult home life (the environmental factors).  The federal district court found that Hall failed to show he was mentally retarded by a preponderance of the evidence and that his intellectual functioning was not beyond the dividing line between retardation and other forms of learning disability.

 

Superficially, and putting aside the particular facts at issue (and the nuances of the law), I’m inclined to agree with Hall (though some of that may be because I do not support the death penalty).  This is not about guilt or innocence, it is about capacity; without exact standards for the definition of mental retardation in our courts, there could be unacceptable divergence in different states – a divergence which may reflect that state’s own inclination towards the death penalty.  When we put someone to death for an admittedly horrific crime, it is imperative that we take into account – as much as possible – mitigating factors in the punishment.  Mental retardation undeniably has many roots, and environmental factors are, as Atkins emphasized, factors that contribute to its development.  The conclusions are not going to be perfect, and mistakes will happen.  Yet, if Texas’ approach stands in contrast to the clinical method, it should be reevaluated and Hall’s case should be remanded for a more exacting determination of his mental capacity.  According to Hall, Texas courts look at lay testimony (including that of prison guards in this case) and that testimony could discredit expert determinations.  Comparatively, at least ten other states expressly adopt clinic categories for assessing adaptive deficiencies.  Consistency, ultimately, is a worthy goal, particularly when the consequence of the decision is between life and death.

 

The state argues that in this case, the environmental factors led to low scores on the IQ test, not that the environmental factors actually led to Hall’s low intelligence.  Further, it’s quite possible that Hall will not receive a mental retardation classification under the clinical approach.  The Court declined the case, but it will certainly be interesting to see, going forward, how other appellate courts deal with this issue, particularly as we become more acutely aware of mental retardation and the challenges people face.