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Kentucky Supreme Court Declares Law Defining Intellectual Disability Unconstitutional, Overturns Death Sentence

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Kentucky held that the state statute determining intellectual disability for disallowing imposition of the death penalty was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment after recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, overturning the death sentence of a man on death row for over 20 years.

Robert Woodall pleaded guilty to the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a teenage girl more than 20 years ago. He was sentenced to death. At the time of his sentencing, state law contained a bright-line rule: A person is not intellectually disabled if his or her IQ score was above 70. Today, the legal landscape regarding intellectual disability and the death penalty has changed, so Woodall filed for postconviction relief based on the new rules. The trial court, however, denied Woodall’s motion without a hearing, and he appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a person with an intellectual disability because it is considered cruel and unusual punishment. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). In Hall v. Florida, 134 S.Ct. 1990 (2014), the U.S. Supreme Court announced that Florida’s bright-line rule that a person whose IQ is above 70 is not intellectually disabled was unconstitutional. The Court concluded that Florida’s law, like Kentucky’s and Virginia’s, which are identical to Florida’s, made no provision to allow a defendant to present other evidence of intellectual disability and violated the Eighth Amendment.

After Hall, the Kentucky Supreme Court held in White v. Commonwealth, 500 S.W.3d 208 (Ky. 2016), that a trial court, in addition to the IQ score, “must consider additional evidence of intellectual disability.” Kentucky Revised Statute § 532.130(2) states that “a defendant with significant subaverage intellectual functioning,” which is defined as an IQ of 70 or below, cannot be executed. White held that the sub-70 IQ must be met before a court may consider other evidence of intellectual disability.

Then, in Moore v. Texas, 137 S.Ct. 1039 (2017), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “a state cannot refuse to entertain other evidence of intellectual disability where a defendant had an IQ score above 70.” The Court further held that “views of medical experts” must inform the court’s determination of intellectual disability and that a law that sets “an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence” of intellectual disability, “when experts in the field would consider other evidence,” was unconstitutional.

“Two things are clear,” the Kentucky Supreme Court concluded about the U.S. Supreme Court’s line of cases: (1) “the prevailing tone” is that the U.S. Supreme Court suggests intellectual disability based solely on IQ score is “highly suspect” and (2) “prevailing medical standards should be the basis” in determining whether a defendant is intellectually disabled. The Kentucky Supreme Court collected several secondary sources and cases from other states, such as Arizona and Colorado, which concluded the same.

Kentucky’s § 532-130(2) “is simply outdated,” the Court said, and the law “potentially and unconstitutionally exposes intellectually disabled defendants to execution.” The Court concluded that “because prevailing medical standards change as new medical discoveries are made, routine application of a bright-line test alone to determine death-penalty-disqualifying intellectual disability is an exercise in futility.”

The Court held “that any rule of law that states a criminal defendant automatically cannot be ruled intellectually disabled and precluded from execution simply because he or she has an IQ of 71 or above … is unconstitutional.”

In an effort to provide guidance to courts addressing this issue, the Court announced a new rule containing three factors that must be considered when determining intellectual disability in Kentucky, in light of Moore: (1) intellectual-functioning deficits—an IQ score of “roughly 70—adjusted for the standard of error measurement,” (2) adaptive deficits—“the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances,” and (3) “the onset of these deficits while still a minor.” The Court stressed that “prevailing medical standards” must take precedence over these criteria in courts’ determination.

Accordingly, the Court vacated Woodall’s death sentence and remanded to the trial court to determine Woodall’s intellectual disability under the new standard articulated by the Court. See: Woodall v. Commonwealth, 2018 Ky. LEXIS 247 (2018). 

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