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Kentucky Supreme Court Holds State Statute Defining Intellectual Disability as IQ of 70 or Lower Unconstitutional, Death Row Prisoner Entitled to Hearing

by Matt Clarke 

The Supreme Court of Kentucky held that a court erred when it denied a death-sentenced prisoner’s post-conviction motion alleging intellectual disability without a hearing based solely on the prisoner’s IQ exceeding 70. It held that prevailing medical standards should always take precedence in a court’s decision, and in doing so, the Court held that Kentucky Revised Statute 532.130(2) is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment because it provides “an outdated test for ascertaining intellectually disability….”

Kentucky prisoner Robert Keith Woodall had resided on death row for 20 years when he filed a post-conviction motion in state court, alleging he was intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for the death penalty. Woodall sought and received funding for an expert. The Commonwealth responded, and Woodall submitted an expert’s opinion that he was intellectually disabled. 

Without conducting a hearing, the trial court denied the motion based upon KRS 532.130(2), which defines an intellectual disability as having an IQ of 70 or lower. Aided by assistant public advocates Timothy G. Arnold and Dennis James Burke and attorney Michael Jay O’Hara, Woodall appealed. 

The Kentucky Supreme Court reviewed the recent history of IQ scores and the death penalty. In Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. 701 (2014), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a rigid and bright-line rule that any person with an IQ exceeding 70 is not intellectually disabled is unconstitutional. The Hall Court noted: “Only Kentucky and Virginia Legislatures have adopted a fixed cutoff identical to Florida’s.” 

The Kentucky Supreme Court responded to Hall by requiring that courts take into account the IQ test’s margin of error. White v. Commonwealth, 500 S.W.3d 208 (Ky. 2016). However, in Moore v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 1039 (2017), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified its holding in Hall that “a State cannot refuse to entertain other evidence of intellectual disability when a defendant has an IQ score above 70,” and that “adjudication of intellectual disability should be ‘informed by the views of medical experts.’ That instruction cannot sensibly be read to give courts leave to diminish the force of the medical community’s consensus.” “Even if ‘the views of medical experts’ do not ‘dictate’ a court’s intellectual-disability determination … , the determination must be ‘informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.’” Moore. Based on the Hall line of cases, the Kentucky Supreme Court concluded that KRS 532.130(2) is outdated and unconstitutional because it lacks the additional consideration of prevailing medical standards in addition to IQ score.

The Court concluded and held “that any rule of law that states that 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, even after adjustment for statistical error, is unconstitutional.” 

The Court then instructed that courts “in this Commonwealth must follow the guidelines established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Moore, which predicate a finding of intellectual disability by applying prevailing medical standards.” The Court explained that the Moore Court “favorably viewed what appears to be the ‘generally accepted, uncontroversial intellectual-disability definition,’ akin to a totality of the circumstances test,” which includes the core elements of a low IQ score, the inability to learn basic skills and adapt to changing circumstances, and the onset of those deficits while still a minor. 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court’s ruling and remanded the case to the trial court to conduct a hearing consistent with this opinion. See: Woodall v. Commonwealth, 2018 Ky. LEXIS 247 (2018). 

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