WASHINGTON (CBSMiami/NSF) — In a case stemming from the 1978 murder of a woman after she left a Leesburg grocery store, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a challenge to Florida’s standards for determining whether Death Row inmates should be shielded from execution because they are mentally disabled.
Inmate Freddie Lee Hall, 68, is seeking to have his death sentence vacated and, in a brief filed by his attorney, contended that Florida has improperly established a “bright line” IQ score of 70 in determining whether people with intellectual disabilities can be executed.
Hall scored just above the state’s cutoff for mental disability as measured by IQ tests.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 2002 case that executing people who are mentally disabled violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment but gave discretion to states in determining standards that would be used.
Hall was sentenced to death for killing Karol 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.
Hall has been in prison more than 35 years, almost all of it under a death sentence. He and another man, Mack Ruffin, were prosecuted for forcing Hurst 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 was also convicted of killing a sheriff’s deputy. Ruffin also initially was sentenced to death, but his penalty later was changed to life in prison.
The case will be argued early next year.
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