Death Row Inmate Freddie Lee Hall's Appeal: Should Mentally Disabled Criminals (Including Murderers) Be Exempt From Execution?

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Freddie Lee Hall's final appeal could influence the criteria state authorities use to evaluate a death row inmate's eligibility for capital punishment. Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

The Supreme Court will on Monday consider the final appeal of Freddie Lee Hall, a Florida death row inmate whose fate may come to have significant bearing on the process whereby state authorities evaluate an intellectually challenged prisoner’s eligibility for execution.

Hall was sentenced to death in the late 1970s after a jury found him guilty of the murder and rape of Karol Hurst, a 21-year-old pregnant woman whom he reportedly met when he was out on parole for another violent crime. But the high court will not consider whether he was wrongfully convicted, or whether the punishment is unjust.

Instead, the appeal seeks to void Hall’s death sentence by invoking a decade-old precedent found in Atkins v. Virginia — a landmark case in which counsel for death row inmate Daryl Renard Atkins successfully argued that, for the “mentally retarded,” capital punishment violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. A majority opinion delivered by the now retired Justice John Paul Stevens banned the execution of inmates with intellectual disabilities, but did not provide a robust framework for evaluating eligibility. It has since been up to state authorities to decide who is and who isn’t mentally fit to die.

Together with several other states, Florida has traditionally used IQ scores to evaluate what the 2002 ruling referred to as “mental retardation.” The cutoff has typically been a score of 70, or about two standard deviations from the mean of 100. Over the years, Hall has scored both above and below this score.

Counsel for Hall is expected to argue that, although Hall has exhibited a level of intelligence that exceeds the state “limit,” school records and court documents show that he has been mentally challenged for his entire life. Psychologists and psychiatrists who have examined the inmate support this, and claim that the criteria used by states like Florida are inadequate. And Judge James Perry, a judge involved in an earlier phase of the case, says that executing Hall would be a clear violation of the rule set forth in Atkins.

"If the bar against executing the mentally retarded is to mean anything, Freddie Lee Hall cannot be executed," he told USA Today, adding that Hall "is a poster child for mental retardation claims."

But attorney Sean Jordan, who represents nine other states that support Florida’s evaluation of inmate eligibility, retorts that the precedent does not suspend the state’s authority. To void Hall’s death sentence on these grounds, he said, is to deny “finality and closure to the victims’ families.” "Atkins did not outsource to mental health organizations the development of substantive criteria, consistent with the Eighth Amendment, for determining mental retardation," he added.

Similarly, Florida’s attorney general Pamela Jo Bondi urged to court not to hear the appeal, citing “histrionic assertions” on Hall’s part. “Hall’s claim, when stripped of its pretensions,” she wrote, “is that this court should alter its Atkins holding to disallow the states from requiring that an intelligence score must fall below a specified level.”

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