TN Supreme Court Holds That Raw IQ Scores Are Not Alone The Limiting Factor In Death Penalty Cases For Intellectual Disability

TN Supreme Court Holds That Raw IQ Scores Are Not Alone The Limiting Factor In Death Penalty Cases For Intellectual Disability

The Tennessee Supreme Court finds in the case of death penalty inmate Coleman that Tenn.Code Ann. §39-13-203(a)(1) does not require that raw scores on I.Q. tests be accepted at their face value and that the courts may consider competent expert testimony showing that a test score does not accurately reflect a person’s functional I.Q. or that the raw I.Q. test score is artificially inflated or deflated.


The underlying facts to Coleman's case are that the victim, Leon Watson, left his home on the morning of May 2, 1979 to go to a nearby grocery store. On the way, he was confronted by Michael Coleman and another.  Coleman robbed and killed Watson, Coleman fired the fatal shot. Coleman also looked through Watson’s wallet and stole a pistol and citizens’ band radio from Watson’s car. A short time later, officers arrested Coleman on another charge. After being advised of his Miranda rights, Coleman confessed that he had shot and robbed Watson.  After a jury trial, Coleman was convicted of robbery and murder and given the death penalty--in part due to his prior violent history including convitions for felonies.  Mitigation evidence on the issue of intellectual disability was limited to raw IQ test scores.

On this appeal from death row, considering the issue of intellectual disability as a possible mitigating factor, the Tennessee Supreme Court observed: "our review of all the cases involving the application of Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 reflect that the parties and the courts have not been limiting their consideration of whether a criminal defendant has a functional intelligence quotient of seventy (70) or below to the defendant’s raw I.Q. test scores. Even though the state is asserting here that raw I.Q. test scores are the sine qua non for determinations under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203(a)(1), it has not been hesitant in other cases to present evidence challenging the accuracy of I.Q. test scores that are not favorable to its position."


Accordingly, Coleman's case is remanded to the trial court where Coleman and the state are free to present additional evidence regarding whether Coleman meets the definition of intellectual disability under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203(a).


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