Kentucky high court: Death penalty IQ law unconstitutional

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled that the state's practice for determining if someone is intellectually disabled and not eligible to receive the death penalty is unconstitutional.

On Thursday, the court deemed outdated Kentucky's use of an IQ test to determine if defendants have the mental competence to be sentenced to death. Trial courts required defendants show an IQ of 70 or below before a hearing to determine intellectual disability.

The court's opinion came in the case of a man convicted of murdering a Muhlenberg County girl 20 years ago, news outlets reported.

Robert Keith Woodall was sentenced to death after pleading guilty in the killing of Sarah Hansen, 16. He admitted to raping her, slitting her throat and dumping her into a freezing lake.

Woodall had argued that he should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled but was denied a hearing. The state Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for him. Terry Sebastian, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, said it joined Woodall in calling for the mental competency hearing.

The court ruled 8-1 in declaring that Kentucky's law violated the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The high court said trial courts now use "prevailing medical standards" to determine a defendant's competency. It also established new guidelines that include assessing defendants' abilities to learn basic skills or adjust their behavior to changing circumstances.

Woodall's attorneys, assistant public advocates Mike O'Hara and Dennis Burke, said in a statement that the decision to abandon Kentucky's statute for a more modern and scientific understanding of intellectual disability is appropriate.

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