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Monday, July 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Florida’s Execution Law Faces High Court Review

WASHINGTON (CN) - A death-row inmate who was deemed not mentally retarded by the same judge who previously found otherwise will have his case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices said Monday.

Freddie Lee Hall has been in prison since his 1981 conviction on the murder three years earlier of Karol Hurst.

Though Hall had been sentenced to death, the Florida Supreme Court eventually found under new precedent at the time that potentially mitigating evidence had been improperly excluded.

At his resentencing, the trial court found that Hall was mentally retarded as a mitigating factor. It nevertheless sentenced Hall to death again, and the state Supreme Court affirmed that the inmate's "serious mental difficulties" did not render him incompetent at the resentencing hearings.

That ruling noted Hall "is probably somewhat retarded."

Hall tried again when the Supreme Court's 2002 holding in Atkins v. Virginia prohibited states from executing the mentally impaired.

Though that decision deemed such executions cruel and unusual, the court tasked the states with developing a means of enforcing the new restriction.

At a December 2009 hearing to vacate Hall's sentence, the court heard evidence about Hall's literacy problems and his low IQ testing. On three tests, Hall scored a 73, an 80 and a 71.

The court determined that Hall could not establish mental retardation since the standard requires an IQ below 70.

In December 2012, the divided Florida Supreme Court affirmed denial, finding "that there is competent, substantial evidence to support the court's finding that Hall is not mentally retarded."

In a concurring opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente attributed the changing opinion on Hall's mental retardation to "the fact that the trial court in 2010 was applying the statutory definition of mental retardation that acts as a bar to execution, which did not exist in 1991."

Though Hall's evidence went unchallenged in 1991, "there was a true adversarial testing of whether Hall was mentally retarded under Florida's statutory definition of mental retardation" in 2010, Pariente wrote.

In one of two dissents, Justice Jorge Labarga found that the Florida Legislature did not comport with Atkins in applying "the statutory bright-line cutoff score of a full scale IQ of 70 for determining mental retardation as a bar to execution."

"Where, as here, the evidence has long established that a defendant is functionally mentally retarded, I believe there is a justifiable concern of constitutional magnitude in putting such a defendant to death," Labarga added.

In another dissent, Justice James Perry found that application of Florida's IQ standard here "reaches an absurd result."

That opinion quotes previous findings of Hall's IQ of 60, brain damage, chronic psychosis, speech impediment, learning disability, functional illiteracy and the short-term memory of a first grader.

Hall had also been physically abused and tortured as a child, the court noted.

He had been the 16th of 17 children born to a woman who once tied him in a sack, swung him over a fire and beat him.

The mother also buried Hall in the sand up to his neck to "strengthen his legs;" and she beat him while he was tied naked to a ceiling beam.

In addition to regularly locking Hall in a smokehouse, the mother held a gun on Hall while poking him with sticks, and starved him to prepare for "the famine."

"Hall is a poster child for mental retardation claims because the record here clearly demonstrates that Hall is mentally retarded," Perry wrote. "The fact that our statutory standard does not agree only serves to illustrate a flaw in the statute."

Per its custom, the U.S. Supreme Court issued no comment in granting Hall a writ of certiorari Monday. It noted only that the petitioner can proceed in forma pauperis.

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