execution chamber
Photo by Wootom, flickr creative commons

By Jasmin Singh

People with intellectual disabilities who sit on death row may find their sentences commuted to life in prison as North Carolina looks to come in line with a recent Supreme Court decision.

Lawmakers in the House Judiciary Subcommittee C worked on a heavily amended bill on Wednesday that would change a number of judicial statutes. The bill previously only considered the issue of drug testing for welfare recipients, but appeared late Tuesday with a dozen additional sections dealing with justice issues.

Execution chamber. Photo credit: Wootom, flickr creative commons

One of those provisions included changes to the statute prohibiting the death penalty for people who are determined to be intellectually disabled.

The proposed bill is a response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling Hall v. Florida, where the court determined it was unconstitutional to use an IQ test score of 70 or below to determine whether someone was intellectually disabled because it creates the possibility that a person with intellectual disabilities could be executed by mistake.

“This act conforms our state law to that ruling,” said Rep. Ted Davis (R-Wilmington), the bill’s primary sponsor.

The bill also adjusts the language in North Carolina statute to “intellectually disabled” instead of “mentally retarded,” which was the common usage in the past.

“The term ‘intellectual disability’ is compliant with current trends nationally, so I think it’s a good move,” said Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Wilson).

No bright line

“You can’t use a bright line [of] 70 for the IQ score,” said legislative staff attorney Hal Pell. “This ensures that the law and our statutes specifically reflect what the Supreme Court said in Hall v. Florida.”

Pell said a standard error of measurement of plus or minus five IQ points must be taken into account according to the Supreme Court.

Gerda Stein, director of public information for the Center For Death Penalty Litigation, said the Supreme Court ruling addresses the possibility of error in determining who might or might not be intellectually disabled.

Sometimes a defendant would go to court and their lawyer would argue that the defendant was intellectually unable to understand what was happening. Some judges would ignore arguments if the defendant’s IQ score was a point or two above 70, while other judges would give more leeway.

Stein said she believes there are at least three cases in which people lost their intellectual disability claims after nonclinical standards were used to assess the defendant’s disability.

“Hopefully, people can go back and re-litigate those conditions that the Supreme Court made clear,” she said.

Stein said 17 people have been taken off North Carolina’s death row since the enactment of the state’s current statute, passed in 2005, and also because of the Supreme Court decision.

Corye Dunn, an attorney and director of public policy for Disability Rights North Carolina, said an IQ test alone isn’t enough to determine disability.

“We need a more comprehensive medical evaluation of a whole person to understand whether they meet the criteria for being eligible for the death penalty, being able to understand what they did and also participate at their defense at the trial,” she said.

Dunn also said that anytime there is a Supreme Court ruling, it governs whether the state statute changes or not.

“Even if this [statute] didn’t pass, we would still need to comply with this ruling,” Dunn said. “But our judges might have less clear guidance about how to comply with the ruling.”

Both Stein and Dunn agree that the state is moving in the right direction.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” Dunn said. “Everybody is working very hard to make sure the language truly complies with the Supreme Court ruling and also works with the context of our statutory framework.”

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Jasmin Singh

Jasmin Singh, was our intern in 2014. She was an editor at the Daily Tar Heel during the 2014-15 school year and graduated in 2015. Jasmin said her experience with NC Health News left her more likely to...