U.S. Supreme Court decision in IQ death penalty case creates new delays

Freddie Lee Hall, 68, killed a sheriff’s deputy and a pregnant woman on the same day in 1978.

Freddie Lee Hall, 68, killed a sheriff’s deputy and a pregnant woman on the same day in 1978.

It comes up again and again in interviews with Lonnie Coburn's aging family members and the retired sheriff's deputies who worked with him: the 36 years they have had to wait for his killer to die.

Freddie Lee Hall's many appeals include the successful one of his original death penalty for killing Coburn, a 25-year-old Hernando County deputy, and several unsuccessful attempts to overturn his death sentence for the rape and murder earlier that day in 1978 of a pregnant 21-year-old Leesburg woman, Karol Ann Hurst.

With Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Hall's challenge of Florida's standard for executing intellectually disabled residents, one thing is all but certain:

If Hall, 68, is eventually put to death, it will require another hearing, a round of appeals and, likely, several more years.

"The bottom line is, he can't be executed until we do it over again," said Ric Ridgway, the chief assistant state attorney for the Florida's 5th Judicial Circuit.

This is only one of two challenges facing Florida after last week's decision. The other is creating statewide rules to replace the state's rigid definition of intellectual disability as an IQ of 70 or below.

Both the state Attorney General's Office and the Florida Supreme Court said it is too early to say how they will proceed with Hall's case. But typically, legal experts said, the state high court refers such matters back to the circuit court.

And though prosecutors could decide not to renew their pursuit of an execution because of Hall's age, Ridgway said, "the presumption is, that if we have enough evidence to proceed, we would proceed. This crime is about as egregious as they come."

The state Supreme Court had ruled previously that one IQ score above 70 — a 71 — was enough to prove Hall was free of intellectual disability. The higher court's ruling requires judges to consider the margin of error in such tests, proof of which can be seen in the results of Hall's own tests — scores between 60 to 80 on nine tests taken over the course of 40 years.

It also requires the consideration of subjective evidence, some of which was admitted in Hall's original trial, long before the United States banned the execution of intellectually disabled residents in 2002. For the defense, that means testimony from several of Hall's 16 brothers and sisters that Hall was "slow with speech and … slow to learn."

His ability to function, last week's opinion said, might have further been damaged by severe abuse at the hands of his mother, who routinely woke him up in the morning by beating him "with a belt, rope or cord," according to testimony cited in the decision.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, would be able to repeat arguments that Hall showed leadership and planning ability in the crimes he committed with Mack Ruffin. He targeted Hurst, for example, partly because he intended to use her car in convenience store robberies, knowing it would be hard to trace it to him or Ruffin.

"Look, these guys weren't rocket scientists," said former Hernando Sheriff Tom Mylander, who was the lead investigator in Coburn's killing. "But they were certainly smart enough to know that killing was wrong."

Florida's 2001 law protecting intellectually disabled residents from execution is adequate as it is, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in statement Tuesday. And creating new standards that comply with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is up to the state's high court, he said.

Though the law could be improved, said John Blume, a law professor at Cornell University who was consulted by Hall's lawyers, Gaetz is mostly right.

"The real problem here is not the statute; it's the Florida Supreme Court's interpretation of it," Blume said.

A final ruling from the state court in Hall's case, after it returns on appeal, could take years.

But much sooner than that, said James Ellis, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, the state Supreme Court will probably include some direction on the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion if it sends Hall's case back to circuit court. Lower court judges will follow the guidelines, he said, "because they don't want to be reversed."

Coburn's mother, Frances Griffin, expects no such speed in securing a new order of execution for Hall.

"He'll be dead before then of old age," said Griffin, 81, of Brooksville.

"He's just going to die in prison."

U.S. Supreme Court decision in IQ death penalty case creates new delays 05/31/14 [Last modified: Saturday, May 31, 2014 10:29pm]

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