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Woodall v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Kentucky

December 14, 2018


          CORRECTED: DECEMBER 13, 2018.


          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Timothy G. Arnold, Dennis James Burke, Assistant Public Advocate, Michael Jay O'Hara, O'Hara, Taylor, Sloan & Cassidy.

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Jeffrey Allan Cross Emily Lucas Assistant Attorney General.



         Robert Keith Woodall was convicted and sentenced to death nearly twenty years ago for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a teenage girl. Today we consider Woodall's appeal from the trial court's denial of his recent postconviction motion requesting that the trial court declare him to be intellectually disabled, which would preclude the imposition of the death penalty.

         Upon consideration of the United States Supreme Court's precedent precluding the imposition of the death penalty upon intellectual disabled persons, we hold that Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 532.130(2), a statute with an outdated test for ascertaining intellectually disability, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's denial of Woodall's motion and remand this case to the trial court to conduct a hearing, make findings, and issue a ruling on the issue of Woodall's potential intellectual disability following this Court's and the U.S. Supreme Court's guidelines on such a determination, especially as espoused in Moore v. Texas.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND.

         Woodall pleaded guilty to murder, rape, and kidnapping and a jury recommended a sentence of death, which the trial court adopted. Extensive collateral-attack litigation followed. Eventually, Woodall filed a Kentucky Rules of Civil Procedure ("CR") 60.02 and 60.03 motion, alleging that he is intellectually disabled and that the imposition of the death penalty upon him is unconstitutional.[2] Woodall also sought expert funding in that motion. The Commonwealth responded, and the trial court granted Woodall's motion for expert funding.

         Woodall then replied with an expert's contemporaneous opinion that Woodall is intellectually disabled. After another response from the Commonwealth and reply from Woodall, the trial court denied Woodall's motion without conducting a hearing, upholding Woodall's death sentence. Woodall then appealed the trial court's denial of his motion to this Court, seeking either (1) a reversing of the trial court's decision and a hearing to plead his case for intellectual disability or (2) a final determination by this Court that he is intellectually disabled, which would preclude the imposition of the death penalty.

         II. ANALYSIS.

         The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution[3] prohibits the execution of a person who has an intellectual disability.[4] The U.S. Supreme Court expounded on this rule in Hall v. Florida, where it held unconstitutional Florida's strict and rigid determination as to whether an individual has an intellectual disability.[5] Specifically, Florida's highest court in Cherry v. State "held that a person whose test score is above 70, including a score within the margin for measurement error, does not have an intellectual disability and is barred from presenting other evidence that would show his faculties are limited."[6] The U.S. Supreme Court held that a rigid and bright-line rule like Florida's was unconstitutional.[7]

         The U.S. Supreme Court in Hall specifically mentioned Kentucky law: "Only the Kentucky and Virginia Legislatures have adopted a fixed score cutoff identical to Florida's."[8] The Court in Hall cited to KRS 532.130(2), [9] which states:

A defendant with significant subaverage intellectual functioning existing concurrently with substantial deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period is referred to in KRS 532.135 and 532.140[10] as a defendant with a serious intellectual disability. "Significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning" is defined as an intelligence quotient (I.Q.) of seventy (70) or below.

         This Court in Bowling v. Commonwealth, decided before the benefit of Hall, interpreted KRS 532.130(2), finding that "[t]he General Assembly's adoption of a bright-line maximum IQ of 70 as the ceiling for mental retardation 'generally conform[s]' to the clinical definitions approved in Atkins, thus does not implicate the Eighth Amendment's proscription against 'cruel and unusual' punishment.... [W]e decline to rewrite this unambiguous statute."[11]

         This Court in White v. Commonwealth, [12] considering the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Hall, expounded on this issue, holding that "trial courts in Kentucky must consider an IQ test's margin of error. And if the IQ score range produced by such consideration implicates KRS 532.130, KRS 532.140, and other relevant statutory provisions, the trial court must consider additional evidence of intellectual disability."[13] This Court left no doubt that "once an evaluation has been ordered for the purpose of determining intellectual disability, then the evaluation must meet the dictates of Hall...."[14]

         We considered the application of our intellectual disability statutes again in the post-conviction challenge of defendant Larry Lamont White in White v. Commonwealth.[15] There, we stated the trial court's process for determining an intellectual disability:

In order for a defendant to meet Kentucky's statutory definition of "serious intellectual disability," and thus evade the death penalty, he or she must meet the following criteria pursuant to KRS 532.135: (1) the defendant' intellectual functioning must be "significantly subaverage"-defined by statute as having an intelligence quotient of 70 or less; and (2) the defendant must demonstrate substantial deficits in adaptive behavior, which manifested during the developmental period.
Procedurally, trial courts require a showing of an IQ value of 70 or below before conducting a hearing regarding the second criteria of diminished adaptive behavior.[16]

         The two White cases show a restriction in Kentucky on the defendant's ability to attain intellectual-disability status to prevent the consideration of the death penalty on the finding that the defendant has an IQ score of 70 or below. While trial courts are required to adjust a defendant's IQ score for the standard error of measurement, [17] the bright-line 70-IQ-score finding still appears to be the strict and rigid hurdle that a defendant must surmount before the trial court considers any other evidence.

         Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Moore v. Texas, [18] giving better, but not much clearer, guidance as to how courts should evaluate this issue. "In Hall v. Florida, we held that a State cannot refuse to entertain other evidence of intellectual disability when a defendant has an IQ score above jq"[19] «AS we instructed in Hall, 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."[20] "Even if the views of medical experts' do not 'dictate' a court's intellectual-disability determination, we clarified, the determination must be 'informed by the medical community's diagnostic framework.'"[21]

         "Hall invalidated Florida's strict IQ cutoff because the cutoff took 'an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant's intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence.”[22] "[W]e do not end the intellectual-disability inquiry, one way or the other, based on [the defendant's] IQ score."[23] "The medical community's current standards supply one constraint on States' leeway" in establishing the standards for determining whether a criminal defendant has an intellectual disability.[24]

         Admittedly, the U.S. Supreme Court has not provided crystal-clear guidance as to what exactly constitutes a constitutional violation regarding the determination of whether a defendant is intellectually disabled to preclude the imposition of the death penalty. It is also true that the U.S. Supreme Court seems to suggest that a defendant's IQ score, after adjusting for statistical error, acts as the preliminary inquiry that could foreclose consideration of other evidence of intellectual disability, depending on the score.[25]

         Two things are clear, however: 1) regardless of some of the statements the U.S. Supreme Court has made, the prevailing tone of the U.S. Supreme Court's examination of this issue suggests that a determination based solely on IQ score, even after proper statistical-error adjustments have been made, is highly suspect; and 2) prevailing medical standards should be the basis for a ...

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