Phillips vs. State
The background section may be especially helpful to understand this case.
In a 4-1 decision, the majority upheld a lower court's ruling that rejected Phillips' claim that he was not eligible for the death penalty because of an intellectual disability.
This ruling also overrides precedent. In Hall v. Florida (Hall, 2014), the U.S. Supreme Court declared Florida’s intellectual disability standards for the death penalty unconstitutional. Hall updated the standards. IQ is only one of three criteria experts use to determine intellectual disability. The second criteria is adaptive deficits, like communication and self-care. The third criteria is that these deficits started before the age of 18. IQ scores are known to have a margin of error. If an IQ score falls within the margin of error, the defendant must be given an opportunity to present more evidence for the other criteria. Florida was not providing a full assessment for defendants with IQ scores of 70+. That increased the risk that a person with an intellectual disability would be executed.
In Walls v. State (Walls, 2016), the Florida Supreme Court ruled the new standards could be applied retroactively. It allowed those who were sentenced before the 2014 Hall ruling to appeal for a new review of their intellectual disability. Phillips, who was sentenced in 1998, falls into that category. The Phillips decision removes the right to appeal for those sentenced before 2014. The ruling reads:
"Based on its incorrect legal analysis, this Court (previously) used Hall—which merely created a limited procedural rule for determining intellectual disability ... to undermine the finality of numerous criminal judgments. ... it does not entitle Phillips to a reconsideration..."
Phillips asked the Florida Supreme Court to review his intellectual disability claim. The majority re-examined their own Walls decision from 4 years earlier. In that time several justices had been replaced.
The majority determined that the Walls ruling misunderstood instructions from the U.S. Supreme Court. They argue, a rule already existed preventing the execution of those with an intellectual disability. Because of this, they believe the ruling was a simple procedural change in support of that goal. It does not block a death sentence for those with an IQ in the margin of error, it is an opportunity to provide more evidence. If it isn’t proven, they would still be eligible for the death penalty. The majority argues that procedural changes have historically not been applied retroactively.
In 2006, before these changes to the law happened, a lower court determined Phillips did not meet any of the criteria. In 2018, another lower court reviewed the evidence from 2006. They determined he met 2 out of 3 criteria for intellectual disability. For this ruling, the Florida Supreme Court reviewed the circuit court’s findings.
- Criteria 1: The lower court considered the margin of error when looking at his IQ. They determined it met criteria. The Florida Supreme Court majority agrees with the new assessment of his IQ score when using the new standard. His IQ test results ranged between 70-75, and the new standard is 75 or below.
- Criteria 2: The lower court said he failed to prove adaptive deficiencies. The majority did not review this (see reasons below).
- Criteria 3: The lower court reviewed the evidence and determined the deficiencies started before he was 18. The Florida Supreme Court majority does not understand why this lower court did not accept prior rulings.
The majority argue it is appropriate to overturn the Walls decision. Phillips, and those that haven’t appealed for a new review, must use the previous, unconstitutional IQ range. Essentially, they will not be able to appeal. Using the previous range, the majority considers Phillips’ IQ scores as failing the criteria. They find no reason to consider if he meets Criteria 2, because Phillips "conclusively failed to establish" that he meets Criteria 1. He could not be found intellectually disabled without meeting Criteria 1.
Dissent: Justice Labarga
"Yet again, this Court has removed an important safeguard in maintaining the integrity of Florida’s death penalty jurisprudence. The result is an increased risk that certain individuals may be executed, even if they are intellectually disabled—a risk that this Court mitigated just three years ago ..."
In his dissent, Labarga points to the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court Hall ruling, which said Florida's intellectual disability standard for death penalty cases was invalid. The standard violated the U.S. Constitution's 8th Amendment, cruel and unusual punishment. He reasons, if the former standard was invalid, then death row inmates sentenced before 2014 who may meet the revised, valid standards should not be deprived consideration. By not providing this opportunity retroactively, intellectually disabled individuals may be executed. This undermines the federal and state mandates against it.
Labarga argues that clarifying criteria for intellectual disability is not just a simple procedural change. The status of being intellectually disabled absolutely prohibits the possibility of execution. A review of those within the IQ margin of error can prevent intellectually disabled persons from being executed.
Labarga is also concerned about the inconsistent treatment that this ruling creates. For over 3 years, Florida had been reviewing individual cases for this new intellectual disability standard. Going forward, those in the same position will unfairly not have the same opportunity.
He includes this quote from Hall: “The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose. Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world. The States are laboratories for experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitution protects.”
Note: Labarga authored the Walls ruling that is being overturned.
Harry Franklin Phillips was sentenced was sentenced to death in 1998. He asked for a review of his claim that he was not eligible for the death penalty because of an intellectual disability. In 2006, he filed for the review in circuit court and it was dismissed. In 2008, the Florida Supreme Court upheld that decision.
In 2016, after Walls v. State updated the intellectual disability standards, he filed for another review with circuit court. They determined he only had 2 of the 3 requirements to consider his request and rejected it.
Phillips appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. He listed these supporting cases in his appeal:
- Hall v. Florida (2014): The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the intellectual disability standards Florida used in death penalty cases violated the 8th Amendment. The ruling set new IQ guidelines and noted that the law requires Hall have the opportunity to present evidence of his disability.
- Walls v. State (2016): The Florida Supreme Court ruled that Hall applies retroactively and Walls was entitled to a new hearing for his intellectual disability claim.
- Moore v. Texas (2019): The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas used outdated medical standards for intellectual disability, in order to determine if a person should be exempt from execution. The outdated standards violated the 8th Amendment.
- Summary from the American Bar Association, 2020
- Reference: 8th Amendment
- Editorial: There's a new virus of judicial activism rampant in Florida's Supreme Court (The Palm Beach Post, 2020)
- Article: Florida Supreme Court conservatives reverse longstanding criminal protections. It’s ‘alarming,’ defense lawyers say (Orlando Sentinel, 2020)
Note: Some resources, like the Orlando Sentinel and Florida Today, have a limited number of free articles before putting up a paywall.