Retroactive Application of the New Intellectual Disability Exemption from the Death Penalty

In our criminal justice system, the system is in place to enforce the laws and rules of each state and the federal government. When the court system finds that a law is unconstitutional, there are certain procedures that must be undergone so that society and the criminal justice system can adapt. Sometimes a new law or the determination that the law is unconstitutional has a very narrow application: It only affects cases moving forward; the law is either good law or the law no longer applies. However, there may be a determination that the law, especially when it is found to be unconstitutional by the courts or changes the status quo, should be applied retroactively, meaning that anyone who has been prosecuted and convicted under the law in the past may be able to have a reduction of sentence or acquittal because the offense is no longer illegal.

It is important to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can guide you or a loved one through the process of demonstrating an intellectual impairment that would make you or that loved one ineligible for the death penalty. Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a confidential consultation.

Florida’s Intellectual Disability Hard-Line Rule

In Florida, this topic of retroactivity has been at the forefront of the criminal justice system due to a recent case that will have an immense impact on who may receive the death penalty and who may not. Previously, Florida had a set a hard-line rule dictating that any criminal defendant with an IQ test score of 70 or below at the commission of the crime was not eligible to be considered under the death penalty. This was due to a determination that this would be cruel and unusual punishment as a person with this low IQ would be unable to understand fully the illegality of his/her actions and/or the consequences associated.

U.S. Supreme Court Finds IQ Requirement Unconstitutional

In May of 2014, this hard-line rule was determined to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, holding that IQ test scores rarely state the actual intellectual disability or status of a person. With our ever-evolving understanding of psychology and cognitive sciences, IQ tests were no longer good science for determining the extent of someone’s cognitive impairments. In other words, someone could be executed who had an IQ test score of 71, but who may suffer to the same extent or more the same intellectual impairment.

Retroactive Application of Unconstitutional Status to Past Criminal Cases?

In the last two years, the unconstitutionality of this rigid rule led to questions within the Florida criminal justice system: Should people who were judged under this rigid rule be permitted to get a new trial? Should they be executed because their intellectual disability fell above the line?

In a recent court case, the Florida Supreme Court finally determined to retroactively apply this new IQ rule, holding that those who were convicted and sentenced to the death penalty under the old system should get a new trial if the new trial might find that they have the requisite intellectual disability needed to be considered ineligible for the death penalty. This was largely because there was speculation in the specifics of the case as to whether the criminal defendant qualified as having a debilitating intellectual impairment at the time of the commission of the crime, and this should be decided in a new trial.

Florida’s Standards for Retroactive Application of Changes in the Law

According to the Florida Supreme Court ruling, a change in the law will only apply retroactively when three prongs are met:

  • The change is constitutional,
  • The change signifies a development that has fundamental significance, and
  • The change occurs at the highest level: either at the Florida Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court.

To determine whether a change is a development is fundamentally significant, it must be established that the change is either so fundamental and of the magnitude that it compels the application retroactively or the change is the type to go beyond the state’s authority to regulate certain conduct or apply certain penalties.

Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a confidential consultation.