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Mental disability an issue in Fla. death penalty

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court will be asked to take another look at how judges should determine if a death row inmate is mentally disabled.

The issue divided the high court this week in a 4-2 opinion upholding Freddie Lee Hall's death sentence for murdering Karol Hurst in 1978.

Hall and another man kidnapped the pregnant Hurst, 21, from a grocery in Leesburg, raped her, killed her and then drove to Hernando County, where Hall shot sheriff's Deputy Lonnie Coburn.

Coburn, 25, was killed outside a Stop 'n' Go convenience store on the eastern end of the county.

On Friday, defense lawyer Eric Pinkard said he will ask for a rehearing and if that fails may take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"That is one of our options," Pinkard said. "There are many cases where the issue is in play."

The federal high court has prohibited the execution of mentally disabled inmates as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment, but has let states determine what constitutes mental disability.

The majority of Florida justices ruled Thursday in Hall's case that they are bound by precedent set in earlier decisions prohibiting anyone with an IQ of 70 or higher from being declared mentally disabled, regardless of other evidence to the contrary.

The Florida Supreme Court in 1989 vacated 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, however, was before the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled mentally disabled inmates could not be executed 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 three IQ test ranged from 71 to 80.

Justice Barbara Pariente sided with the majority in upholding that decision.

Justices Jorge Labarga and James Perry dissented. Justice Peggy Quince did not participate.

Perry noted that Hall's teachers described him as mentally disabled and in two prior rulings the Supreme Court noted that testimony reflected Hall had an IQ of 60 and suffered organic brain damage.

"Hall is a poster child for mental (disability) claims," Perry wrote.

Mental disability an issue in Fla. death penalty 12/21/12 [Last modified: Friday, December 21, 2012 10:44pm]
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