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Supreme Court will rule on role of mental disability in death row case

Freddie Lee Hall has survived Florida’s death row for decades since he was convicted and sentenced for a 1978 murder.

Now the Supreme Court will use his case to judge the state’s strict standard for determining when a convicted criminal’s mental disability is severe enough to rule out the death penalty.

On Monday, the high court announced that it will hear Hall’s challenge to Florida’s rule that a convicted criminal must have a tested IQ of 69 or lower in order to be deemed intellectually disabled. This determination is a matter of life or death, as the Supreme Court has ruled previously that the intellectually disabled – formerly referred to as the mentally retarded – cannot face the death penalty.

“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 retarded 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.”

Pinkard argues that Florida’s explicit definition, which allows the execution of someone with a tested IQ of 70 or above, fails to account for standard measurement error. The Supreme Court itself, in the 2002 decision protecting the intellectually disabled from execution, declared that an IQ between 70 and 75 is typically considered the cutoff score.

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 had an IQ of 60 and was “functionally illiterate and has the short-term memory of a first-grader,” the dissenting opinion observed. In later years, though, Hall’s IQ was variously measured at 71 and 73.

“Unfortunately,” Pinkard wrote in his petition to the high court, “the human race has not developed a test for mental retardation that is like a blood pressure machine, hooked up to a defendant’s arm with a (gauge) that reads ‘R’ for retarded or ‘N’ for not retarded.”

Pinkard is with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state-funded agency whose attorneys represent indigent death-row inmates. Their cases can take years to unfold; Pinkard has been representing Hall since 1999.

Hall and Mack Ruffin Jr. were charged in the Feb. 21, 1978, murders of Karol Lea Hurst, a 21-year-old housewife who was seven months pregnant, 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.

In addition to the intelligence test score cutoff, Florida defines intellectual disability as a condition that appears in childhood and is accompanied by “deficits in adaptive behavior,” which essentially means the ability to live independently. By one count, more than a dozen other states use an IQ score of 70 as a cutoff point, giving the Supreme Court’s ultimate ruling potentially more significance.

“This is not just a single case; it’s not just a single state,” said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “A fair number of defendants’ lives depend on this. This could have broad implications.”

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.

In the 2002 case, called Atkins v. Virginia, a divided court first concluded that the execution of the intellectually disabled violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The court’s 6-3 majority reasoned that “society views mentally retarded offenders as categorically less culpable than the average criminal.”

Two of the justices who dissented in that case, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, remain on the court. A staunch law-and-order conservative, Justice Samuel Alito, has replaced Sandra Day O’Connor, who voted with the majority in the Atkins case. A frequent swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy was a member of the majority in 2002 that limited the death penalty.

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