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U.S. Supreme Court overturns death sentence of intellectually disabled killer

Freddie Lee Hall is escorted from a temporary command center in Trilby after his capture. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down his death sentence Tuesday, which had been handed down in the killing of a Hernando County sheriff's deputy and a pregnant woman. Times (1978)
Freddie Lee Hall is escorted from a temporary command center in Trilby after his capture. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down his death sentence Tuesday, which had been handed down in the killing of a Hernando County sheriff's deputy and a pregnant woman. Times (1978)
Published May 28, 2014

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 — and, with it, Florida's legal standard for protecting intellectually disabled criminals from execution.

Basing such decisions solely on whether a defendant scores 70 or below on an IQ test, as the Florida Supreme Court did in Hall's case, fails to consider other potential evidence of disability as well as the margin of error in IQ tests, according to the ruling of a 5-4 court majority.

This "creates an unacceptable risk that persons with an intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.

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.

"My heart is in my stomach right now," Coburn's sister, Judy Mitchel, 51, of Valrico, said after hearing of the ruling. "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."

Tuesday's ruling could have an impact on similar cases in Florida and in at least four other states that have a similar standard, said John Blume, a Cornell University law professor who was consulted by Hall's lawyers.

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 3½ 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.

Scott's general counsel, Pete Antonacci, who oversees the governor's legal responsibilities in death penalty cases, said he was not aware of any other case that would face a new review because of the Hall decision.

Terri Backhus, a Tampa lawyer who does appeals for death row inmates, said the decision will mean a number of death sentences will have to be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court, but she did not know how many.

"I think the court is going to have to go back and reverse itself and redo some of those cases, because we've been bringing up this issue all along," Backhus said. "It's very significant. … It's a really difficult thing to try to quantify someone's intellectual ability."

Backhus cited the "bellwether case" of Roger Lee Cherry, whose death sentence was upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2007. Cherry used the "mental retardation claim," in the words of the court opinion, to challenge his conviction on two counts of first-degree murder in the 1986 killings of a DeLand couple. The court upheld a lower court decision that Florida's "70 IQ score (was) a bright-line cutoff" to determine an inmate's intelligence.

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Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, a strong supporter of capital punishment and chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, criticized the decision and predicted it would encourage death penalty lawyers to file new appeals to postpone executions.

"If you're competent to commit the crime, you're competent to receive the punishment," Gaetz said.

James Ellis, a University of New Mexico law professor who filed a friend of the court brief in the Hall case, said the problem is the Florida Supreme Court's interpretation of state law, not the law itself.

The law was passed in 2001, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned the execution of people with severely limited mental capacity. It does not say, as the state court did, that other evidence of mental disability should not be considered if a defendant's IQ is above 70.

Hall's IQ has been measured at 71, according to U.S. Supreme Court's ruling, and his lawyers also have produced evidence that he suffered emotional damage due to severe abuse as a child.

Hall will remain in prison on a life sentence. It was unclear Tuesday whether officials will try again to get him sentenced to death.

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.

And Hall planned them well, Brown said. Hall found Hurst by staking out a grocery store in Leesburg at a time when almost all of the customers were women. He singled out Hurst because she was pregnant and therefore less likely to fight back, Brown said.

Hall was smart enough to know he had to drive her to a remote part of Sumter County, where he raped her, then killed her so she couldn't identify him.

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.

Brown said he agrees with Tuesday's ruling that IQ should not be the sole standard for measuring intellectual disability.

But that's partly because Hall is smarter than his IQ showed, Brown said: "He was very good at solving practical problems."


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