The intellectually disabled inmate on death row in Florida will have his fate decided by the Supreme Court

Freddie Lee HallMonday, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in a case titled Hall v. Florida. At issue in this case is Freddie Lee Hall, who was sentenced to death, but also deemed to be mentally retarded (now called intellectually disabled.) Hall has tested over 70 on Intellectual Quotient exams, the widely known cut off point used rigidly in Florida. The Court’s decision will be issued in June, 2014.

The challenge in almost every death penalty case that’s worked its way up to The Supreme Court is the right of each state to determine the mental capacity of a death row inmate versus a federal guideline. Florida’s method of determining who is “intellectually disabled” is among the most restrictive. 

In determining eligibility for the death penalty for capital crimes, most states follow clinical guidance from the mental-health profession, which looks to factors beyond raw IQ; such as an individual’s ability to function in social settings or learn from experience.

In 1978, Freddie Lee Hall, who was on a robbery spree with an accomplice, was convicted of the rape and murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 and seven months pregnant when Mr. Hall and the accomplice forced her into her car in a supermarket parking lot. She was found in a wooded area, where she had been beaten, sexually assaulted and shot.

On Monday, the Court seemed skeptical about Florida’s solicitor general Allen Winsor, who said his state’s approach was “a reasonable legislative judgment,” one he said was followed in eight states. But Justice Kennedy said the approach amounted to declining “to follow the standards that are set by the people that designed and administer and interpret the tests.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer suggested that the court could require an expert to explain statistics to the judge or jury deciding whether the inmate had an intellectual disability. “What is so terrible about doing it?” he asked. Mr. Winsor responded “what is so terrible about doing it is you would end up increasing the number of people who would be eligible for a mental retardation finding. Florida has an interest in ensuring that the people who evade execution because of mental retardation are people who are, in fact, mentally retarded.

Justice Scalia, Freddie Lee Hall
Justice Scalia

In 2002, in a case called Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court barred the execution of mentally retarded defendants, finding the practice violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” However, the decision left the definition of mentally retarded to state law, creating a range of standards that could result in one state executing a defendant whom another state would have found ineligible.

“We didn’t base our decision in Atkins upon a study of what the American Psychiatric Association and other medical associations considered to be mental retardation,” Justice Antonin Scalia said. “We based it on what was the general rule that states had adopted.”

According to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), three criteria must be met for a diagnosis of intellectual disability: An IQ below 70, significant limitations in two or more areas of adaptive behavior (as measured by an adaptive behavior rating scale, i.e. communication, self-help skills, interpersonal skills, and more), and evidence that the limitations became apparent before the age of 18.

It is formally diagnosed by an assessment of IQ and adaptive behavior. A third condition requiring onset in childhood is used to distinguish intellectual disability from dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease or due to traumatic brain injuries. Even Texas, the leader in executions uses the above definition in determining the intellectual disability of a death row inmate. Still, it is not law in Florida.

In the oral arguments Monday, conservative Justice Scalia negated the DSM-IV saying that “it changes” and therefore cannot be relied upon. Scalia used the example that homosexuality used to be called a mental disorder and is now determined not to be.

To most constitutional lawyers there seems little doubt that the Founding Fathers intended to allow for the death penalty in drawing up the US Constitution of 1787. Certain provisions of the Constitution expressly allow for the taking of life. At the same time, other provisions were deliberately phrased in ambiguous ways to suggest that even though certain forms of punishment can be banned (like crucifixions), the basic principle of government executions remained permissible if individual states wished to permit them.  

While liberal-leaning states have moved away from the death penalty, Southern states have taken steps to continue executions, even switching protocols because European nations have refused to permit the export of drugs to the U.S. typically used for lethal injections.

Texas conducted almost half of the 1,118 executions since capital punishment was reintroduced following a 1976 Supreme Court ruling, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Oklahoma and Virginia each executed 110 inmates, with Florida in fourth place at 84.

Hi everyone! I am a prior litigation paralegal and graduate of the UCLA paralegal program. My undergraduate studies were at University of Nevada, Las Vegas majoring in Sociology and minoring in Business. Adding law heightened my analytical skills of legal issues, social issues and I worked on several high profile class action cases against BMW; Microsoft; General Motors; 24 Hour Fitness; Airborne vitamin supplement and several other class action cases that were litigated U.S. Federal Courts. I love writing about political and consumer protection issues and proud to be a contributor for Quietmike.org.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Let’s have a serious comment. Freddie Lee Hall and his accomplice, Mack Ruffin, both had enough sense, or intelligence, to know that they should not rape a woman. They didn’t commit this crime in broad daylight, in the parking they met her in. No, they kidnapped her, took her to a secluded area in the dark where they couldn’t be seen, nor heard. They had enough intelligence to understand there would be consequences for their actions if caught. So.. they killed Mrs Hurst, then buried her in a shallow grave. They then made a run to distance themselves from the scene of the crime. They came to Hernando County where they had enough intelligence to sneak up on Deputy Coburn, jump him, take his own gun, and then……. shoot him in the rib cage where his protective vest did not cover. I would say that took some intelligence as well. I don’t really care what this criminal’s test scores are now. These crimes were committed over thirty five years ago. The fact that he is still alive, and his buddy was exonerated from the death penalty, is a fine example of the failure of our legal system, to punish the guilty. How much choice did Karol Hurst, or Lonnie Coburn get before they were killed. Did they get thirty five years to plead for their lives? I don’t think so. This guy is an animal, he knew rape and killing were wrong, but made a concious choice to commit those crimes. HE SHOULD BE PUT TO DEATH. I, and many of my family, especially Deputy Coburn’s mother, who is no in her 80’s would finally receive some closure.
    By the way, Deputy Coburn was my cousin, and best friend. He was 25 years old then. He would be approaching his 62nd birthday if still alive. PUT FREDDIE LEE HALL TO DEATH….

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