The IQ Exemption

by | Mar 24, 2002

The never-ending battle of the left to keep people from being held responsible for the consequences of their own actions is now in the Supreme Court of the United States, where the justices are being urged to exempt murderers from the death penalty if they score below some number on the IQ scale. Many of […]

The never-ending battle of the left to keep people from being held responsible for the consequences of their own actions is now in the Supreme Court of the United States, where the justices are being urged to exempt murderers from the death penalty if they score below some number on the IQ scale.

Many of the same people who have been telling us for years that IQ and other mental test scores are not really valid, when it comes to determining people’s “real” ability to do academic work, have now turned around 180 degrees and made a low IQ score an exemption from paying the price for killing a fellow human being.

First of all, you don’t need to know that E equals MC squared to know that killing somebody is wrong. If these murderers don’t know that it is wrong to kill, why do they usually do it where no one can see them? Why don’t they do it at high noon in Times Square or during half-time at the Super Bowl? Why do they try to cover their tracks or try to escape when the cops arrive?

Should anyone be surprised if some murderers have low IQs? Killing is not an academic or intellectual activity. Thanks in part to the kinds of indulgent liberals who are constantly trying to get more leniency for people who are doing the wrong thing, we have people who have been doing the wrong thing all their lives. The kind of kid who was more interested in being the schoolyard bully than in learning anything is unlikely to have honed enough intellectual skills over the years to register very high on IQ tests.

Guys who have had more experience with drugs than with books are not likely to score well on mental tests, any more than people with high IQs are likely to have as much expertise as he does with drugs, crime and violence. Now that a low IQ is supposed to become a passport out of death row, do not expect him to try his best if his IQ is being tested when he is down the hall from the execution chamber.

There have already been cases of welfare mothers who have told their kids to misbehave in school and do badly on tests, because that can get them more money from government programs. Are the incentives any less when the death penalty is hanging over some murderer’s head and when he has a lawyer to tell him what to do?

People who glide easily from test scores to a conclusion of “mental retardation” have a faith which passeth all understanding. There are kids whose IQs have varied by 40 points from one test to another, even without the incentives of welfare or the death penalty, because of the circumstances of the child, the conditions surrounding the test or whatever. One of the kids in a group that I have been dealing with over the years went from a “mentally retarded” IQ range to an above average range inside of a year. Nobody gets that much smarter that fast.

Psychology and psychiatry are not sciences, though some courts have been pretending that they are, ever since a landmark case in 1954 expanded the insanity defense. This was “merely one way of welcoming the psychiatrist into the courtroom,” in the words of Chief Justice David Bazelon, who presided over that case. This opened the floodgates to unverifiable speculations.

Even when the insanity defense did not succeed, it took up precious time in trial courts and appellate courts, while a backlog of cases left career criminals walking the streets awaiting trial. Now that it was no longer enough to simply prove whodunit, more prosecutors’ time and resources had to be spent rebutting psychological speculations, instead of moving on to getting other criminals off the streets.

That is also likely to be the consequence of adding IQ scores to the long list of things to be litigated endlessly on appeal. Even if not a single murderer escapes the executioner, there will still be heavy costs to a legal system that already takes far too long to resolve issues.

No one wants to see executions of individuals who are genuinely incapable of understanding what they were doing. That exemption has long been part of traditional Anglo-American law. What happened in 1954 was an expansion of that exemption on the basis of psychological speculations, as a prelude to a general increase in the leniency of criminal law, which preceded a skyrocketing increase in crime rates in the 1960s.

We have been down that road before. We don’t need to go further down that road again.

Walter Williams (March 31, 1936 – December 1, 2020) was an American economist, commentator, academic, and columnist at Capitalism Magazine. He was the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and a syndicated editorialist for Creator's Syndicate. He is author of Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?, and numerous other works.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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