The Kentucky Supreme Court threw out an "unconstitutional" state death penalty law Thursday and ordered a new hearing for a man convicted of murdering a teenager 20 years ago.
Kentucky uses an IQ test to determine if defendants have the mental competence to be sentenced to death, a practice the court deemed outdated.
The opinion arose from the case of Robert Keith Woodall, who was sentenced to death after he pleaded guilty to slitting the throat of Sarah Hansen, a 16-year-old Muhlenberg County honor student. Woodall raped and dumped her into a freezing lake, where she drowned in 1998.
Woodall argued he shouldn't get the death penalty because he is intellectually disabled but was denied a hearing. Following Thursday's decision, his case will now be sent back to a lower court.
Terry Sebastian, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, noted it joined Woodall in calling for the mental competency hearing.
Assistant public advocates Mike O’Hara and Dennis Burke, who represent Woodall, said they were grateful the Kentucky Supreme Court decision will allow the trial court to consider Woodall’s claim.
The U.S. Supreme Court bans the death penalty for people who are determined to be intellectually disabled. The decision stems from concerns that such defendants are vulnerable to injustice because they can't navigate the criminal justice process, Burke and O'Hara said.
Relying on Kentucky's IQ standard alone is an "exercise in futility," the court wrote, also saying that it "potentially and unconstitutionally exposes intellectually disabled defendants to execution."
In an 8-1 ruling declaring Kentucky's law unconstitutional, Kentucky's high court said trial courts now use "prevailing medical standards" to determine a defendant's mental competency. It established new guidelines that include assessing defendants' abilities to learn basic skills or adjust their behavior to changing circumstances.
"While Kentucky was one of the first states to prohibit the execution of the intellectually disabled when it passed the statute that the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down today, that statute had long since become obsolete as the science moved forward," according to a statement from Woodall's attorneys.
"The Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision today to abandon that statute in favor of a more modern and scientific understanding of intellectual disability is very appropriate.”
Trial courts required that defendants show an IQ of 70 or below before a hearing to determine intellectual disability.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr., said the state's practice for determining mental competency violated the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The ruling cited recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that had invalidated laws similar to Kentucky's IQ requirement.
In a partial dissent, Justice Sam Wright agreed that Woodall should get a hearing to determine whether he has an intellectual disability but disagreed that the state law is unconstitutional. He argued the statute is based on an accepted standard established by the American Psychiatric Association and that prevailing medical standards are subject to debate.