The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down the death sentence of Freddie Lee Hall, who killed a Hernando County sheriff's deputy and a pregnant woman in Sumter County on the same day in 1978.
Hall, 68, had been sentenced to life in prison for killing Deputy Lonnie Coburn and to death for raping and murdering 21-year-old Karol Hurst in Sumter County.
The court, continuing a trend to limit capital punishment, ruled that Florida's IQ score cutoff was too rigid to decide which mentally disabled individuals must be spared the death penalty.
"Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of 70 on an IQ test," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in a 5-4 decision.
This "creates an unacceptable risk that persons with an intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional," Kennedy wrote.
He was joined by the court's four-member liberal wing, a recurring coalition in cases concerning harsh punishments.
When the court barred the execution of people with mental disabilities in 2002 in Atkins vs. Virginia, it largely let the states determine who qualified. Tuesday's decision, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the four dissenters, represented a "sea change" in the court's approach.
The ruling will affect not only Florida, which has the nation's second-largest death row, but also as many as eight other states by Kennedy's count, including Virginia and Alabama. They will now be required to take a less mechanical approach to mental disability in capital cases, said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra.
"Death row inmates commonly suffer from multidimensional mental problems," Freedman said. "Today's ruling requires courts to investigate these fully, by looking at the elephant rather than the tail."
Coburn's sister, Judy Mitchel , 51, of Valrico, said after hearing of the ruling, "My heart is in my stomach right now. Thirty-six years and they haven't done anything to (Hall). It's not fair and it's not right to the people he killed."
Experts on both sides said the decision also is likely to slow the pace of executions in Florida, which has accelerated since Rick Scott became governor in 2011.
During Scott's nearly 3 1/2 years in office, Florida has had 17 executions, a faster pace than under any other governor since the state reinstituted the death penalty in 1976.
Jimmy Brown, who prosecuted Hall for both the Coburn and Hurst killings, pointed out that the death sentence of Hall's accomplice in the crimes, Mack Ruffin, was overturned partly because a court found that Hall had planned them.
Brown said Hall, who still faces a sentence of life in prison, planned the killings well. Hall found Hurst by staking out a grocery store in Leesburg, and singled out Hurst because she was pregnant and therefore less likely to fight back, Brown said.
And, Brown said, when Hall was later confronted by Coburn at a convenience store in eastern Hernando County, he knew enough to fire the fatal shot in a gap between the panels of his bulletproof vest.
Hall, he said, is smarter than his IQ showed: "He was very good at solving practical problems."
New York Times contributed