Supreme Court: Can Florida execute 'mentally retarded' prisoner?

On Monday, the court is scheduled to hear a Florida case involving the death penalty as applied to those deemed to be mentally retarded – in this case, Freddie Lee Hall, who has a low IQ.

Alex Brandon/AP
An American flag flies in front of the Supreme Court in Washington. On Monday, the court is scheduled to hear a Florida case involving the death penalty as applied to those deemed to be mentally retarded.

The US Supreme Court is turning its attention to capital punishment this week, with the justices taking up a case examining whether Florida is engaging in cruel and unusual punishment by seeking to execute a condemned prisoner who may be mentally retarded.

The high court declared in 2002 that the Eighth Amendment barred use of the death penalty for anyone with mental retardation. But the court left it to each state to decide how best to determine which defendants qualify as “mentally retarded” for purposes of the death penalty.

On Monday, lawyers for death row inmate Freddie Lee Hall are set to argue that Florida uses an unacceptable method to decide who is – and who isn’t – mentally retarded. The argument will be presented by former US Solicitor General Seth Waxman.

The case is a potential landmark because it could establish a national standard for executions involving individuals with mental retardation. Or it could reaffirm that states retain discretion to decide for themselves who to execute.

If a majority of justices set a national standard it would open new avenues for lawyers seeking to halt executions in a variety of cases in Florida and other states.

Hall’s lawyers say their client has been mentally retarded throughout his life and that Florida judges have recognized that fact in earlier stages of his case. They say Florida is refusing to recognize Hall’s mental retardation now to facilitate his execution.

Florida officials defend their process as an acceptable method to draw the difficult distinction between those with a mental disability severe enough to exempt them from capital punishment, and those whose disability is not severe enough.

The Florida Supreme Court has approved a bright-line cutoff that applies to all death row inmates suspected of being mentally retarded. Inmates with a tested IQ of 70 or below are deemed to be mentally retarded and thus ineligible for capital punishment.

Under the Florida rule, an inmate with an IQ of 71 and above is not mentally retarded and can be put to death by the state.

Critics say the Florida rule ignores the fact that IQ tests carry a standard error of measurement of plus or minus 5 points.

From 1968 to 2008, Freddie Lee Hall took nine different IQ tests. The results range from a high score of 80 in 1986 to a low score of 60 in 1988. His average IQ score from all nine tests is 72.66.

The most recent test was in 2008. Hall scored an IQ of 72.

Hall was convicted and sentenced to death for his role in the February 1978 kidnap, sexual assault, and murder of a 21-year-old housewife, Karol Hurst, who was abducted from a Pantry Pride parking lot in Leesburg, Fla., after shopping for groceries. The victim was seven months pregnant.

Hall and another man wanted her car to carry out a convenience store robbery. Rather than simply taking the car, Hall forced Hurst into her vehicle and drove her to a wooded area. The other man followed in his own car.

Later that day, a sheriff’s deputy was shot dead after confronting the two men outside a convenience store. They led police on a high-speed chase with Hall driving Mrs. Hurst’s car, her groceries and purse still in the vehicle.

There is no claim in the case that Hall wasn’t involved in the two deaths. The issue before the high court is whether Florida’s method in determining Hall’s eligibility for a death sentence comports with the requirements of the Eighth Amendment and the nation’s “evolving standards of decency.”

In its 2002 ruling barring execution of defendants who are mentally retarded, the justices said such an intellectual disability undercuts reasoning, judgment, and control of impulses. The court said a mentally retarded person may not act with the same level of moral culpability as other adults accused of crimes carrying the death penalty.

“The predictable consequence of Florida’s rule is that persons with mental retardation will be executed,” one of Hall’s lawyers, Eric Pinkard of Florida’s Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, wrote in a brief to the justices. “Without this Court’s intervention, that will happen here.”

Mr. Pinkard added: “The evidence is overwhelming that Freddie Lee Hall has mental retardation.”

Lawyers with the Florida Attorney General’s Office argue that the high court has given ample leeway to the states to decide the issue. The justices should defer to elected state lawmakers to decide how best to draw the line for mental retardation, they say.

“Florida’s method for determining whether a capital offender is mentally retarded is fully consistent with the Eighth Amendment,” Florida Solicitor General Allen Winsor wrote in his brief to the court.

“Despite decades of consistently scoring above 70 on IQ tests – a widely recognized threshold for mental retardation – Hall contends that Florida is constitutionally obligated to apply a five-point error range because professional organizations suggest that approach in a clinical context,” Solicitor General Winsor said.

He said Florida’s 70-point IQ cut-off “captures those so impaired as to fall within the range of mentally retarded offenders about whom there is a national consensus.”

Hall’s lawyers say that a test score alone is not enough information to make an accurate determination about mental retardation. They say there should be additional evaluation to supplement the test results.

Someone with an IQ test score of 75 could also be diagnosed with mental retardation if that individual showed evidence of limitation in performing adaptive behaviors normal for adults and if that person showed first signs of a mental disability before age 18, they say.

“Florida’s clinically arbitrary bright-line rule – under which a person with an IQ test score of 71 may be executed notwithstanding a consistent diagnosis of mental retardation – flouts the constitutional principles this Court recognized in [its 2002 decision],” Pinkard said.

“As this Court made clear, States have leeway to adopt appropriate procedures to enforce [constitutional guarantees],” the lawyer wrote. But he said nothing in the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision “authorizes the States to narrow the substantive scope of the constitutional right itself by defining mental retardation in a way that excludes defendants who qualify for a diagnosis of mental retardation under accepted clinical standards.”

In their brief, state officials dispute claims by Hall’s lawyers that the severity of his mental retardation left him unable to function as an adult.

Winsor says in the Florida brief that the facts of Hall’s crimes suggest that the killings were not the result of uncontrollable impulse or misunderstanding. Instead, the two men were following a multi-step plan to steal a car, rob a convenience store, avoid using their own car to evade capture, and prevent leaving any witnesses.

Hall had an earlier criminal conviction for sexual assault and had attempted to gouge the eyes of his victim to avoid his identification. He was on parole for that crime when the two killings occurred.

Hall was the older of the two men and it was Hall who obtained the gun. The other defendant had no prior criminal history.

Hall’s lawyers say their client endured unspeakable abuse by his mother as a child. They say she beat him 10 or 15 times a week in part because he was “slow.”

He is unable to read or write and never mastered basic arithmetic. They say he could not cook for himself or clean his own clothes.

The case is Freddie Lee Hall v. State of Florida (12-10882). A decision is expected by late June. 

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