Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Experts Can Testify to Reflect Capital Defendant’s Actual Cognitive Abilities in Addition to Consideration of IQ Scores

Coleman v. State, 2011 Tenn. LEXIS 319 (April 11, 2011)

The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that under Tennessee law a defendant can present expert testimony to show that his test scores do not accurately reflect his actual cognitive abilities for purposes of raising a defense of intellectual disability to a sentence of death. The defendant in this case had been convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death over 30 years ago. Following the decision in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2001), prohibiting imposition of the death penalty for persons with mental retardation, the inmate filed a habeas petition alleging that he suffered from an intellectual disability. The evidence presented at his habeas hearing indicated, among other things, that his mother had an intellectual disability and history of mental illness, that his home was violent, chaotic and overcrowded, that his mother drank, engaged in prostitution and abused him, and that his father had spent most of his life in prison and had little-to-no involvement in his life. The petitioner had failed 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 7th grade and was only “socially promoted” to higher grade levels, and that he was teased by his fellow classmates. He was lonely and stigmatized as a child and intellectually and socially behind his peers. He was viewed as “dull” by police officers with whom he had many encounters as a juvenile.

Even though eight other state statutes limit the assessment of intellectual disability to scores on IQ tests, the Tennessee Supreme Court found that Tennessee law does not limit the evidence to test scores. The Tennessee statute requires a “functional” intelligence quotient of 70 or below, not just a test score of 70 or below. The Court therefore concluded that its General Assembly wanted courts to make fact-intensive and complex decisions with assistance from experts in the field because “functional” IQ cannot limited to raw IQ scores. Trial courts may therefore receive and consider any relevant and admissible evidence as to whether the defendant’s IQ is 70 or below. It noted that under the Flynn effect recognized by mental health experts, IQ test scores tend to increase over time. Clinical judgment is therefore important in diagnosing and assessing intellectual disability in borderline cases, especially since the standard of error measurement is generally 3-5 points. The Court therefore remanded the case to the trial court to consider expert testimony in determining the petitioner’s functional IQ.

Found in DMHL Volume 30 Issue 5