WASHINGTON: Eleven years after the Supreme Court barred states from executing mentally disabled inmates, the justices said Monday they will take up a Florida case over how authorities determine who is eligible to be put to death.
The outcome could answer a question left unresolved by the court’s 6-3 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, the 2002 case that spares the mentally disabled from the death penalty. The ruling essentially left it to states to decide whether an inmate is mentally disabled.
The case under review is an appeal of a Florida Supreme Court ruling that upheld the death sentence for Freddie Lee Hall, who scored just above the state’s cutoff for mental disability as measured by IQ tests.
Hall was sentenced to death for killing Karol Lea Hurst, a 21-year-old pregnant woman who was abducted leaving a grocery store in 1978.
Florida law prohibits anyone with an IQ of 70 or higher from being classified as mentally disabled, regardless of other evidence to the contrary. Hall’s scores on three IQ tests ranged from 71 to 80.
Florida is one of nine death penalty states with a strict IQ limit, said Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente. The others are: Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington.
Pariente voted with the majority to uphold Hall’s sentence, but noted there is no national consensus on how to determine mental disability.
Hall’s case has bounced around the Florida courts for decades. In 1989, the Florida Supreme Court threw out Hall’s original death penalty and ordered a new sentencing hearing. A judge then resentenced Hall to death, but declared he was mentally disabled. That took place before the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said executing a mentally disabled inmate violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and before Florida passed a law setting the IQ limit.
When Hall later filed another appeal, the same judge ruled he was not mentally disabled because his scores on IQ tests topped 70.
The sixteenth of 17 children, Hall was “tortured by his mother and abused by his neighbors,” according to a 1993 dissenting opinion in the Florida Supreme Court. He was “functionally illiterate and has the short-term memory of a first-grader,” the dissenting opinion observed.
“I’m very pleased they will be taking the case up,” Eric Pinkard, Hall’s Tampa-based appellate attorney, said in a telephone interview Monday. “The Florida definition leads to the possibility that the mentally [disabled] will be executed.”
Whitney Ray, the press secretary to Florida Attorney General Pamela Jo Bondi, said in a statement that Florida courts had found that Hall “is not intellectually disabled. We will urge the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Hall’s sentence.”
Sheriff also killed
Hall and Mack Ruffin Jr. were charged in the Feb. 21, 1978, murders of Hurst, a housewife, and Hernando County Deputy Sheriff Lonnie Coburn. According to a court summary, Hall and Ruffin collaborated in kidnapping Hurst in her own car from a Pantry Pride supermarket parking lot in Leesburg, Fla. They drove to a wooded area, where, Hall told investigators, Ruffin beat, sexually assaulted and shot Hurst.
Shortly thereafter, prosecutors say, Coburn confronted the two men, and was killed with his own gun.
Hall and Ruffin were tried separately for the Hurst murder, of which both men were convicted and received death sentences. Ruffin’s sentence later was commuted to life in prison. Hall, who’s now 68, is one of 405 inmates who await execution in Florida.
The case will be argued early next year.
The court’s decision to hear Hall’s appeal means that at least four of the nine justices are interested in revisiting a 2012 Florida Supreme Court opinion that rejected the inmate’s death-penalty challenge. Simply getting this far is also a victory of sorts for Hall and Pinkard, as the U.S. Supreme Court typically agrees to hear only about 75 cases out of the 9,000 or so petitions filed annually.
The Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.