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Court skeptical of IQ scores in deciding execution

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This undated photo made available by the Florida Department of Corrections shows inmate Freddie Lee Hall. Hall, a Floridian with an IQ as high as 75 may be diagnosed as mentally disabled and eligible for help getting a job. But on death row, the state says an IQ higher than 70 categorically means an inmate is not mentally disabled and may be executed. The Supreme Court barred states from executing mentally disabled inmates in 2002, but until now has left the determination of who is mentally disabled to the states. In arguments Monday, 68-year-old Florida inmate Freddie Lee Hall is challenging the state’s use of a rigid IQ cutoff to determine mental disability. (AP Photo/Florida Department of Corrections, HO)

This undated photo made available by the Florida Department of Corrections shows inmate Freddie Lee Hall. Hall, a Floridian with an IQ as high as 75 may be diagnosed as mentally disabled and eligible for help getting a job. But on death row, the state says an IQ higher than 70 categorically means an inmate is not mentally disabled and may be executed. The Supreme Court barred states from executing mentally disabled inmates in 2002, but until now has left the determination of who is mentally disabled to the states. In arguments Monday, 68-year-old Florida inmate Freddie Lee Hall is challenging the state’s use of a rigid IQ cutoff to determine mental disability. (AP Photo/Florida Department of Corrections, HO)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court seems likely to say that states can’t rely on intelligence test scores alone in borderline cases to determine that a death row inmate is mentally able and thus eligible to be executed.

The justices heard arguments on a snowy Monday in a challenge from a Florida inmate who says there is ample evidence to show he is mentally disabled, even though his most of IQ scores have topped 70.

That score is the widely accepted as a marker of mental disability, but medical professionals say that test results have a margin of error and in any case are just one factor in determining mental disability.

The decisive vote appears to belong to Justice Anthony Kennedy and he repeatedly questioned the state’s argument for a rigid cutoff.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

The Supreme Court is hearing an appeal from a Florida death row inmate who claims he is protected from execution because he is mentally disabled.

The case being argued Monday at the court centers on how authorities determine who is eligible to be put to death, 12 years after the justices prohibited the execution of the mentally disabled.

The court has until now left it to the states to set rules for judging who is mentally disabled. In Florida and certain other states, an intelligence test score higher than 70 means an inmate is not mentally disabled, even if other evidence indicates he is.

Inmate Freddie Lee Hall has scored above 70 on most of the IQ tests he has taken since 1968 but says ample evidence shows he is mentally disabled.

A judge in an earlier phase of the case concluded Hall “had been mentally retarded his entire life.” Psychiatrists and other medical professionals who examined him said he is mentally disabled.

As far back as the 1950s, Hall was considered “mentally retarded” — then the commonly accepted term for mental disability — according to school records submitted to the Supreme Court.

He was sentenced to death for murdering Karol Hurst, a 21-year-old pregnant woman who was abducted leaving a Florida grocery store in 1978.

Hall also has been convicted of killing a sheriff’s deputy and has been imprisoned for the past 35 years. He served a prison term earlier for assault with intent to commit rape and was out on parole when he killed Hurst.

Hall’s guilt is not at issue before the high court.

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the state law regarding executions and mental disability has no wiggle room if an inmate tests above 70.

Psychiatrists and psychologists who are supporting Hall say an IQ test alone is insufficient for a diagnosis of mental disability. They say there’s a consensus among the mental health professions that accurate diagnosis must also include evaluating an individual’s ability to function in society, along with finding that the mental disability began in childhood.

They and Hall also contend that an IQ score is properly read in a range because the results are generally reliable, but not 100 percent so. The range takes into account a margin of error, a feature of all standardized testing.

The case is Hall v. Florida, 12-10882.

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Follow Mark Sherman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shermancourt

Associated Press

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