Death penalty: Supreme Court to hear case of mentally deficient Florida man

Florida says the man does not score below its 70-point IQ cutoff line for death penalty cases, but the Supreme Court has decided to consider whether his execution would be cruel and unusual. 

The US Supreme Court agreed on Monday to examine whether a Florida death-row inmate suffers from a mental deficiency significant enough to render his pending execution cruel and unusual.

Freddie Lee Hall has been on death row since 1981. There is no doubt that he suffers from severe mental deficiencies. He has been diagnosed with a variety of impairments, including chronic psychosis and a learning disability that left him functionally illiterate with a short-term memory equivalent to a first grader’s.

According to experts in Florida, Mr. Hall has a low IQ, but it is not below the state’s bright-line cutoff of 70, below which the state considers defendants in capital cases to be mentally retarded and exempt from execution.

Hall’s lawyer, Eric Pinkard of Capital Collateral Regional Counsel in Tampa, disputes the conclusion that his client is not mentally retarded.

In his appeal, he is challenging the procedure used by Florida to determine IQ and mental retardation. He says mental health experts should determine a range of IQ scores rather than one particular IQ number.

Ultimately the question in the case is whether Hall’s mental deficiency is so significant that he is unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct. If so, his execution by the state would violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment under a 2002 Supreme Court precedent.

The 2002 case, Atkins v. Virginia, established that subjecting a mentally retarded individual to capital punishment would violate the Constitution. But the court left it to the states to define the precise contours of who qualifies as mentally retarded for purposes of capital punishment.

Mr. Pinkard is asking the high court to overturn an earlier ruling by the Florida Supreme Court upholding his client’s death sentence. He said the Florida courts managed to determine during his client’s appeals that Hall “had become un-retarded between 1992 and 2009.”

Pinkard says the Florida Supreme Court decision “reveals confusion and a call for help and guidance to this court from the majority [of Florida justices].”

He added that the two dissenting justices expressed “outright disgust … at the prospect of executing a clearly mentally retarded human being.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi had urged the Supreme Court not to take up Hall’s case.

She defended Florida’s procedure for determining mental retardation in capital cases, saying the state was not obligated to jettison its bright-line test of using an IQ score of 70 or below.

Hall was convicted in 1981 for the murder of Karol Hurst, a 21-year-old housewife who was seven months pregnant.

Mr. Hall and another man, Mack Ruffin, spotted Mrs. Hurst as she left a Pantry Pride grocery store in Leesburg, Fla. They abducted her and drove her to a wooded area where she was beaten, sexually assaulted, and shot.

The case is Hall v. Florida (12-10882). Oral argument will be heard next year with a decision by June.

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