Supreme Court to examine Florida death penalty case involving mental disability

October 21, 2013

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 to 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 Hurst, 21, who was abducted as she left a grocery store in 1978.

Florida law prohibits anyone with an IQ of 70 or higher from being classified as mentally disabled, regardless of additional evidence. 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 Virginia, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Washington.

In Virginia, people can be deemed to have an intellectual disability, thus making them ineligible for a death sentence, if they both show an IQ score of 70 or less and demonstrate “significant limitations in adaptive behavior,” according to information provided by the state attorney general’s office.

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 that Hall was mentally disabled. That occurred 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 filed another appeal, the same judge ruled that Hall was not mentally disabled because his scores on IQ tests topped 70.

Hall has been incarcerated for more than 35 years, almost all of it under a death sentence. He and another man, Mack Ruffin, were prosecuted for forcing Hurst, who was pregnant, to drive from a Pantry Pride parking lot in central Florida’s Leesburg to a wooded area, where she was sexually assaulted and shot to death. The pair also were convicted of killing a sheriff’s deputy. Ruffin initially was sentenced to death, but his penalty later was changed to life in prison.

The case will be argued early next year.

— Associated Press

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