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Hall's 35 years on death row illustrate Florida's flaw

Brooksville lawyer Jimmy Brown picked up the paper one day last week and the main story rekindled a nightmare, the cold-blooded murders of Karol Hurst and Hernando County sheriff's Deputy Lonnie Coburn. He thought of their families and the sadness they must feel every time the killer's face shows up, every time attorneys think of another tactic to save him.

Thirty-five years after the crimes, Florida is still trying to kill Freddie Lee Hall, now 68. Thirty-five years. Germany rebuilt its cities in less time after World War II.

He's appealed his convictions every way possible, and now his last chance presumably rests with the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed last week to hear the case. Hall's lawyers have argued for years that he's too mentally challenged to execute. In Florida, that would mean his IQ is below 70, a number Hall's lawyers say the state pulled out of its you-know-what. Hall's IQ test results ranged from 71 to 80.

Brown was a young shining star in the 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office in February 1978 when Hall and his accomplice, Mack Ruffin, kidnapped Hurst, 21 and seven months pregnant, from a grocery store parking lot in Leesburg, drove her to a remote area and raped her. She begged for her life, even wrote a $20,000 check before Hall shot her. Ten years earlier, Hall had raped another woman in Sumter County. He gouged her eyes out with his fingers to prevent her from identifying him, but he was still convicted and sent to prison.

The two men made their way to Ridge Manor, where they intended to rob a convenience store. Deputy Coburn, 25, responded to the suspicious men. He struggled with Hall, who got control of his service revolver and shot him. Law enforcement officers from around the region tracked the two men to a swamp in rural Pasco County and showed amazing restraint not shooting them.

I was in my first full year with the Times, living in Brooksville. The editor sent me over to the Hernando jail to wait for more information about Coburn. Time has not erased memories of the horror we all felt in that room when a fellow deputy carried in Coburn's clothing and the bulletproof vest he had been wearing.

Brown knew Coburn well. He attended the autopsy, examined recordings of the deputy's calls for help. He went after Hall and Ruffin with vigor and helped secure convictions and death penalties, all reduced to life in prison except for Hall's murder of Hurst. Ruffin, 21 at the time and considered under the thumb of the older man, assumed his role as a prisoner for life, which is why you never hear about him except in connection with Hall's appeals.

The notion that Hall is mentally challenged is laughable, Brown said. "He may not take IQ tests well, but he's not stupid. He was, however, completely void of any conscience or moral scruple.''

Before the first sentencing, the state introduced a psychiatric report that said Hall was good at solving problems, Brown said. "He planned everything. He found a pregnant woman coming out of a grocery store, an easy mark to kidnap. He knew where to park at the convenience store for the best escape route after the robbery. He took Lonnie's gun and knew there was a space between the front and back panels of his protective vest.

"I watched him through both trials and he was always alert and consulting with his lawyers," Brown said.

In 1978, Florida was wrestling with how to best implement the death penalty, which had been restored two years earlier. Brown, who would secure 16 death penalty convictions before entering private practice in 1984, recalled Hall's as a "no-brainer.''

"If anybody deserved death,'' he said, "it was Freddie Lee Hall.''

That said, the news last week about the latest appeal gave Brown pause. Just as he had been eloquent in his prosecution all those years ago, he articulated the dark reality in a state where 412 prisoners sit on death row. "At the time we prosecuted Freddie Lee Hall, I gave no thought that his case could drag on like this or that there would be so much cost,'' he said. "I still think he deserves death, but we're at the point where we need serious public debate without political rhetoric about doing away with the death penalty.''

Many other states have come to the same conclusion, focusing more on the practicality and expense, less on the traditional moral arguments. Florida lawmakers should take note.

Hall's 35 years on death row illustrate Florida's flaw 10/29/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 7:15pm]
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