One of Hernando County's most infamous killers will get his day in front of the highest court in the land.
The Supreme Court said Monday that it will take up the case of Freddie Lee Hall, who was convicted in the 1978 murders of a pregnant Sumter County woman and Hernando County Sheriff's Deputy Lonnie Coburn.
The outcome could answer a question left unresolved by the court's 6-3 decision in Atkins vs. Virginia, the 2002 case that spares the mentally disabled from the death penalty. The ruling essentially left it to states to decide whether an inmate is mentally disabled.
Hall, 68, has argued for years that his mental capacity should prevent him from being executed for the murder of 21-year-old Karol Hurst. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the death sentence in 2012, a decision Hall is now appealing.
Florida law prohibits anyone with an IQ of 70 or higher from being classified as mentally disabled, regardless of other evidence to the contrary. Hall's scores on three IQ tests ranged from 71 to 80.
In a brief filed in June, Hall's attorney argued that Florida cannot create "a bright line cutoff for determining mental retardation, where no instrument exists that can measure IQ with that level of precision."
"While this court granted the states leeway in crafting appropriate methods to enforce the constitutional restriction against execution of the mentally retarded, it did not grant the authority for a state to create out of thin air a definition of mental retardation which undoubtedly will fail to identify mentally retarded capital defendants,'' said the brief by Eric Pinkard.
The state attorney general's office argued that the U.S. Supreme Court should not take up the case. In part, the attorney general's office says evidence during a 2009 hearing indicated Hall had an IQ higher than 70.
"Not only did the Florida Supreme Court hold that Hall has not produced an IQ score falling in the range of mental retardation, the true facts are that Hall has scored as high as 80 on intelligence testing, and such a score is well outside any possible diagnosis of mental retardation," Senior Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Nunnelley wrote in a July brief. "(The U.S. Supreme Court) has long recognized that its jurisdiction does not lie to review decisions from state courts that rest on adequate and independent state law grounds, which this most certainly is."
Florida is one of nine death penalty states with a strict IQ limit, said Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente. Pariente voted with the majority to uphold Hall's sentence, but noted there is no national consensus on how to determine mental disability.
Hall and another man, Mack Ruffin, forced Hurst to drive from a Pantry Pride parking lot in Sumter County to a wooded area, where she was sexually assaulted and shot to death. She was seven months pregnant.
Hall and Ruffin then took Hurst's car and drove to Hernando County, where Coburn approached the two men in the parking lot of a Ridge Manor convenience store. One of them — it remains uncertain which one — grabbed Coburn's revolver and shot and killed him. Hall and Ruffin were given life sentences for Coburn's death.
Hall has been in prison more than 35 years, almost all of it under a death sentence for Hurst's death. Ruffin was originally sentenced to death, too, but that ruling was later overturned and changed to life in prison.
In 1989, the Florida Supreme Court threw out Hall's original death penalty and ordered a new sentencing hearing, ruling that the jury should have heard more evidence about his childhood before he was sentenced to death.
A judge resentenced Hall to death, but declared he was mentally disabled. That took place before the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said executing a mentally disabled inmate violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, 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 IQ tests topped 70.