PRO: Supreme Court should set IQ standard with additional training

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Nov. 3, 2013 at 5:03 a.m.
Updated Nov. 4, 2013 at 5:04 a.m.

Using a set of questions or an IQ test to determine whether someone is intellectually disabled is too risky, according to an expert on the death penalty.

Texas uses a set of questions that are stereotypes about how mentally disabled people act, and an IQ test, like a poll, has a margin of error of plus or minus five points, said Kathryn Kase, the executive director of the Texas Defender Service.

That's why the Supreme Court should set the definition.

"It seems to me that it's one thing to have a law, but we also have to be sure that the laws are only as good as the lawyers and judges can enforce the law," she said of the Atkins vs. Virginia decision.

It's not that judges are doing a poor job; they could just use some additional training, she said.

Requiring it of them would make sense, especially because attorneys on the capital case appointment list are required to maintain a certain number of training hours every two years, Kase said.

Elliott Costas is one of the attorneys in the Crossroads who knows all about that training requirement.

He has lost count of how many capital cases he's worked on since beginning criminal defense in 1984. He is not a fan of standardized tests.

"I'm not a big central government type," Costas said, "but I do believe for death penalty litigation there ought to be mental health standards that are agreed upon by the psychological and psychiatric community" because if Florida death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall had been in another state, his score might have kept him from receiving the death penalty.

"That's not right," Costas said.

Psychologists also have told him that IQ tests are recalibrated periodically, such that a one point difference could be significant.

A normal IQ, or intelligence quotient, ranges from 90 to 110, and mild intellectual disability ranges from 50 to 70 and 75, said Lane Johnson, the director of clinical services for Gulf Bend Center.

Florida seemed to use the lower end of the spectrum and possibly relied too heavily on the test, he said.

Lane said he would like for the Supreme Court to come up with a uniform standard but did not know how it would do so.

Victoria County has worked with a licensed forensic and board-certified doctor based in Sun City for the past six years on cases in which mental illness may be involved, Gulf Bend Center's Executive Director Don Polzin said.

Although he is more than 100 miles away, the doctor can evaluate the defendant through video conferencing technology set up in the jail.

If he is asked to testify in court, he makes the trip to do so, Polzin said.

The doctor doesn't just administer an IQ test. By visiting with them face to face and pulling their medical record, he gets a well-rounded picture of that individual, Johnson said.

Still, Polzin agreed, "if there's something broken about the process, I would hope that it went through a review at whatever court level to include the Supreme Court to best assure that the process is fair."

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