Divided Florida High Court Rules Defendant Is Not Mentally Retarded - State v. Hall

December 27, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

As fans of criminal defense law know, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states may not put mentally retarded defendants to death. Not surprisingly, this has generated more death penalty appeals from defendants who--rightly or wrongly--contend that they are unfit for execution because of their diminished mental capacity. In State v. Hall, defendant Freddie Lee Hall argued that his death sentence should be vacated because a court had previously found him mentally retarded. A majority of the Florida Supreme Court disagreed, saying competent and substantial evidence was heard in lower courts that Hall was not retarded. A dissent argued passionately that he is.

Hall was sentenced to death for the 1978 murder of Karol Hurst. Direct appeals were exhausted early, but a federal habeas petition resulted in an Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals order to hear evidence related to his absence from the courtroom and the effectiveness of his counsel. That hearing was fruitless, as was Hall's first petition to this court. However, his second petition resulted in a holding that errors at his trial were not harmless, and his case was sent back for re-sentencing. At that re-sentencing, the court again sentenced Hall to death, but held that he was mentally retarded and that this was a mitigating factor. A third trip to the Florida Supreme Court resulted in a holding that Hall was competent but mentally retarded. After the Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Virginia, Hall moved to vacate his sentence, resulting in the instant case. Over his objection, the trial court relitigated his mental retardation and denied relief.

On appeal, Hall argued that the trial court erred in picking an IQ of 70 as a cutoff for finding mental retardation, because a more appropriate standard would provide for a scoring range. A Florida law provides a definition of mental retardation, the court said, and it has survived several challenges claiming it's inconsistent with Atkins. It declined to revisit the issue. The court next dismissed Hall's arguments that he should have been able to introduce evidence that he met the second and third parts of the mental retardation test, saying Hall did not meet the first and thus, further inquiry was useless. Another piece of unadmitted evidence said Hall's IQ was 69; the high court said it was not error to not admit it because it was not competent evidence. Finally, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that it was not error to relitigate the issue of Hall's mental retardation, saying it had to be relitigated to meet post-Atkins standards.

One dissent to this opinion takes issue with the "absurd" result, given Hall's background; the other argues that the IQ cutoff of 70 is inconsistent with Atkins. Given the importance and passion connected to the death penalty, the dissents may be attempting to set up the case for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Homicide cases like this one frequently result in multiple appeals, as the record in this case shows, and the Supreme Court turns away death penalty appeals often. However, this case may get more attention because it creates an opportunity to clarify the Atkins ruling. A ruling clarifying the standard for finding mental retardation, particularly if it takes previous rulings into account, would apparently ease a burden on Florida courts.

Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients who are charged with a crime in Florida or suspect they will be soon. We take calls from clients and potential clients 24 hours a day and seven days a week, because we know police and prosecutors don't take weekends off. For a free, confidential consultation, send us an email or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333).

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