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DeWitt: Life in prison, not death, best for Freddie Lee Hall

Freddie Lee Hall has been on death row for 36 years.

Freddie Lee Hall has been on death row for 36 years.

I'm not sure it's ever acceptable to think of a human being as trash, but if we make one exception, it might be for Freddie Lee Hall.

His 1978 killing of a cop, Hernando County Sheriff's Deputy Lonnie Coburn, is not even his most heartless crime, maybe not even close.

A few hours before killing Coburn, Hall had raped a woman, Karol Ann Hurst, who was seven months' pregnant. What's more, he singled her out because she was pregnant and therefore less likely to fight back, said Jimmy Brown, the Brooksville lawyer who, as a young assistant state attorney, prosecuted Hall.

After the rape, Hall told his accomplice, Mack Ruffin, there was only one way to make sure Hurst couldn't identify them — shooting and killing her, which Hall did even though she begged for her life.

Hall told Ruffin this because he had previously been convicted of rape despite what he thought was the most logical way of dealing with a witness/victim, gouging out her eyes.

So, let's say for a moment that he is trash; it has certainly been said before.

And let's apply that comparison to the people responsible for dealing with this kind of mess. Let's think of a criminal justice system as another public service, as an ordinary utility.

When we take our garbage to the curb, do we care what happens to it next, whether it is incinerated or sealed in a landfill? Not at all. We care only that it never fouls the place we live, never interferes with our ability to get on with a peaceful, orderly life.

Which is one more reason the death penalty is a failure. It doesn't accomplish this goal. And because of the unavoidable complexities of applying such sentences, it never will. Life in prison is simply a better, more efficient tool for the job at hand.

Hall, such a clear candidate for the death penalty, is an even clearer example of its flaws.

See, he keeps coming back, keeps demanding our time, attention and money, keeps reminding his victims' families of events they are doing their best to forget.

First Hall successfully appealed his death sentence in the killing of Coburn; there wasn't enough proof of premeditation, a judge ruled.

He has since challenged his remaining death sentence, for killing Hurst, on other grounds — on supposedly inadequate representation by his original attorneys, on abuse that he suffered as a child, and, most recently, on his claimed intellectually disability.

"Recently," of course, is a relative term. This challenge was filed in 2004 and worked its way all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided last month that the state's standards for determining this disability were unconstitutional, which meant tossing out a decade's worth of work by our judicial system and telling it to try again.

How much is all this costing? We don't know, exactly. But we do know that, according to a 2008 study by the Urban Institute, imposing the average death penalty costs $1.9 million more than a life sentence.

And we know that the case of Hall, who has been on death row for 36 years, is far from average. So it's safe to say he's costing us a whole bunch, and even safer to say that spending even a penny more than necessary on someone such as Hall is an awful shame.

The problem is, if we seek death, spending that money is necessary. Death is final; it's drastic. It demands an extra level of consideration. This is, after all, the state that leads the nation in exonerations of death row inmates since the early 1970s, with 24. And, as much as some people don't want to hear it, Hall's case has dragged on so long mostly because he raised issues we need to think hard about before putting someone to death.

Is it possible that he became a ruthless, brutal man because he was raised by a brutal, ruthless mother? He is human, after all, so of course.

And could this have bearing on whether he deserves to be executed? Absolutely.

Is he smart enough to be executed? There's evidence on both sides and it all should be considered.

You don't agree? You don't approve of the idea of a rapist and murderer standing before the court asking for sympathy? You prefer to think of Hall as trash that just needs to be disposed of?

Fine. Call your local lawmakers and tell them how much you hate the death penalty.

DeWitt: Life in prison, not death, best for Freddie Lee Hall 06/12/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2014 1:48pm]
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