State Supreme Court resets rules for judging intellectual capacity in death penalty cases

Freddie Lee Hall, 71, convicted of two 1978 murders, registered IQ scores lower than 70.
Freddie Lee Hall, 71, convicted of two 1978 murders, registered IQ scores lower than 70.
Published Sept. 9, 2016

The death penalty for Freddie Lee Hall, convicted of the 1978 slayings of a pregnant Leesburg woman whom he also raped and a Hernando County sheriff's deputy, was vacated by the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday.

In doing so, the state's highest court reset the process judges will use to determine the intellectual capacity of defendants in Florida's death cases.

Such a ruling had been expected since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 decision upholding Hall's challenge of Florida's old standard for executing intellectually disabled offenders. But several lawyers said they were impressed by the state court's thorough reconsideration of the issue and the new standards the court handed down Thursday.

"It has seriously gone about its review of the evidence in Mr. Hall's case," said James Ellis, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, who had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Hall's behalf in his federal appeal.

One U.S. Supreme Court justice, Ellis said, had written that " 'intellectual disability is not a number but a condition,' and it seems to me that the court in Florida has followed that faithfully."

The main problem with the state's previous interpretation was that it relied too heavily on IQ test results, the court ruled Thursday, echoing the federal opinion.

"It takes IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant's capacity," the new ruling stated.

The earlier state decision, Thursday's opinion also said, failed to account for the margin of error in such tests, proof of which is that Hall registered scores lower than 70. It also ignored wider-ranging evidence of his lack of mental capacity, such as evidence collected by psychologist who determined in 2009 that Hall was intellectually disabled.

This information included interviews with family members who said that Hall, 71, had always been considered "slow." He scored mostly F's in school before dropping out in 11th grade, the psychologist found. Several counselors during Hall's school years in the 1950s had labeled him as "mentally retarded," and he was repeatedly placed in classes for low-functioning students.

The state court on Thursday ruled that it had been wrong to disregard this testimony and wrote in its conclusion that "the definition that matters most is the one used by mental health professionals."

Marie-Louise Samuels Parmer, a Tampa lawyer who specializes in death penalty appeals, said Thursday's ruling "gives meaning to the instruction of the U.S. Supreme Court in that (Florida courts) have to consider accepted scientific opinion when assessing intellectual disability."

She said the decision could affect several pending appeals in death cases based on this question, including the cases of two of her clients.

Ric Ridgway, the chief assistant state attorney for Florida's 5th Judicial Circuit, interpreted the opinion as more narrowly focused on Hall's case and said it was an almost inevitable outcome of the federal decision.

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"The way the (U.S. Supreme Court) was moving on this issue, I'm not surprised at this outcome. In fact, I'd be surprised if it went any other way," Ridgway said.

Whitney Ray, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office, said its lawyers are "reviewing the opinion to determine whether or not to request a rehearing."

But as it stands now, Ridgway said, the direction of the ruling is clear: The state Supreme Court sentenced Hall to life in prison and left no room for prosecutors to try to restore his death sentence.

Ridgway would have done so if the evidence allowed it, he said two years ago, because "this crime is about as egregious as they come."

In February 1978, Hall and an accomplice, Mack Ruffin Jr., kidnapped Karol Hurst — 21 years old and pregnant — outside a Leesburg grocery store. They later raped and killed her and, after driving to Ridge Manor, killed Lonnie Coburn, 25, a Hernando County sheriff's deputy.

Ruffin's death sentence was overturned years ago, as was Hall's death sentence in the killing of Coburn.

Hall had been one of the longest-serving inmates on Florida's death row, according to the state Department of Corrections website.

Thursday's ruling requires courts to consider signs of practical intelligence, and one of Hall's original prosecutors, Brooksville lawyer Jimmy Brown, said Hall showed plenty in planning and carrying out his crimes.

He chose a vulnerable victim, mapped out a little-traveled escape route and knew enough to fire a gun between the panels of Coburn's bulletproof vest.

Brown said he still thinks that "the only just disposition for Hall would be to carry out the sentence (a circuit judge) imposed back in the summer 1978."

Contact Dan DeWitt at Follow @ddewitttimes.