by Kanya Bennett, Director of Policy Development and Programming at the American Constitution Society, Angelyn Frazer, State Legislative Affairs Director at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society Foundations
In 1989, five African American and Latino boys were wrongly convicted of a heinous crime committed in New York City’s Central Park. Filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon document their story in The Central Park Five. As PBS describes, The Central Park Five documentary “raises important questions about race and class, the failings of our criminal justice system, legal protections for vulnerable juveniles, and basic human rights.”
The Central Park Five featured our criminal justice system at its very worst. The police, with great help from the media, made vulnerable juveniles of color the poster children for violent criminal activities or what they coined a “wilding,” a narrative they held on to even when the evidence suggested another story. Prosecutors played detectives and advanced their case against the boys using this flimsy support. And a lawyer whose job it was to poke holes in the district attorney’s assertions allegedly fell asleep, almost every day, during trial.
More than a decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) that the eighth amendment categorically forbids people with intellectual disabilities from being sentenced to death and executed. States were charged with the appropriate role of setting procedures to enforce and give effect to this Constitutional protection.
On March 3, 2014, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Hall v. Florida.
The question presented is narrow:
Whether Florida’s statutory scheme for identifying defendants with “mental retardation," as interpreted by the Florida Supreme Court, violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against executing people with intellectual disabilities as articulated in Atkins?
As a note of reference “intellectual disabilities,” adopted since the Court ruled in Atkins, is the preferred clinical term over “mental retardation.”
At stake is whether Florida is obliged to honor the limits imposed by the eighth amendment and refrain from executing a man who falls within the class of people for whom the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment. This inquiry goes to the heart of the deal struck in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976). In Gregg the Supreme Court held that the death penalty could be administered in a manner consistent with the Constitution. The Court’s ruling was premised on the reasonable expectation that states will work within the framework created by the Court as the final arbiter of constitutional standards for the practice. This premise cannot hold, however, if states continuously seek to circumvent these standards by erecting barriers to the recognition of constitutional rights.
by John H. Blume, Professor of Law, Cornell University Law School
On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument in Hall v. Florida. The narrow but important question the Court must decide is whether persons who have been clinically diagnosed with mental retardation (now commonly referred to as intellectual disability) can nevertheless be put to death if they cannot satisfy the rigid IQ test score cutoff of 70 established by the Florida Supreme Court—a cutoff clearly inconsistent with the commonly agreed upon definition of mental retardation embraced by the Court in its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia which all but a handful of outlier states use.
In Atkins, the Court recognized that a “national consensus” had developed against executing persons with mental retardation and concluded that the practice is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Prior to Atkins, Florida courts had determined that “Freddie Lee Hall has been mentally retarded his entire life.” One would think this is a simple case. It should be. Yet, Hall is at risk of being executed. How could this be?
The Atkins Court relied upon the clinical definitions developed by the two premier professional organizations in the field: the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR), now the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD); and, the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Both definitions have three prongs: significantly subaverage intellectual functioning; adaptive functioning deficits; and onset during the developmental period. Only the first prong is at issue in Hall, and without getting too “deep in the weeds,” significantly subaverage intellectual functioning is understood as an IQ of approximately 70. The question is—at bottom—a simple one: is Florida free—post-Atkins—to adopt a definition of intellectual functioning for capital cases, which is fundamentally inconsistent with the professional consensus regarding the use of IQ tests?
In an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel and Audie Cornish, Daniel Webster—Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research—discusses the grave consequences that followed Missouri’s 2007 repeal of a law requiring background checks for gun buyers.
President Obama continues to face criticism concerning the diversity of his judicial nominees. MSNBC’s Adam Serwer reports on growing liberal concern surrounding the president’s judicial nominees in Georgia.
Ta-NehisiCoates of The Atlantic reflects on the Jordan Davis murder, eloquently identifying racism in America as “not merely a belief system but a heritage.”
A group of legal organizations are using television advertising to push the issue of court transparency at the Supreme Court. Josh Gerstein of Politico has the story.
At CAC’s Text & History Blog, Tom Donnelly shares “six reasons to keep an eye on the Greenhouse Gas Cases.”
Matt Bodie at Prawfs Blawg argues in favor of incentivizing cheaper law school course material.
Volkswagen workers at a Chattanooga, Tennessee plant announced their decision last Friday not to join the United Automobile Workers. Steve Greenhouse of The New York
Times reports on the possibility of a German-style works council in
Chattanooga and what it could mean for Volkswagen and the UAW.
At the CPRBlog, Thomas McGarity and Matt Shudtz examine the legal concessions made by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in a policy proposal that protects workers from silica dust exposure.
Writing for The Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie discusses the Michael Dunn murder trial and the racial consequences of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
Mark Sherman of The Associated Press notes how President Obama’s judicial appointees are shaping the discussion on same-sex marriage in Virginia.
Writing for The Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains why the race of a mythical princess continues to play a role in the study of black history.