Kimberly Swygert told you so: It’s dumb to rely on IQ scores to judge who’s smart enough to be executed for murder.
IQ scores are not absolute, they’re not error-free, and they’re not invariant within examinees. It certainly would be easy to fake a low score if the alternative is the gas chamber; a judgment of mental retardation based on such data would be fraught with error. What’s more, an inmate could genuinely get smarter over time if the prison had a helpful education program – or if his lawyer helped him learn. (For some criminals of deprived backgrounds, prison is the most instructive and structured environment they’ve ever known.) If that were to happen, which IQ score should be used when assigning punishment? Should an inmate essentially be punished for improving his mind in prison?
That scenario has unfolded for Daryl Atkins, the Virginia man whose case led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule it’s unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. Atkins’ IQ scores have risen, probably due to the mental stimulation of interacting with legal team. He no longer scores as mentally retarded. A defense expert says his IQ is 74; the prosecution expert says 76. Virginia says anything above 70 is normal enough.
“Oddly enough, because of his constant contact with the many lawyers that worked on his case,” the psychologist, Dr. Evan S. Nelson, wrote in a report in November, “Mr. Atkins received more intellectual stimulation in prison than he did during his late adolescence and early adulthood. That included practicing his reading and writing skills, learning about abstract legal concepts and communicating with professionals.”
Kimberly says the rise in IQ from 59 to 74-76 is too large to be random variation. Atkins got smarter in prison. Does that mean he should die for crimes he committed when he was less capable? How smart is too smart to live?