TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ The Florida Supreme Court will be asked to take another look at how judges should determine if a death row inmate is mentally disabled.
The issue divided the high court this week in a 4-2 opinion upholding Freddie Lee Hall's death sentence for murdering Karol Hurst, a 21-year-old, pregnant woman who was abducted leaving a Leesburg grocery store in 1978. A co-defendant is serving a life sentence.
Defense lawyer Eric Pinkard, who works for a state office that represents death row inmates, said Friday that he will ask for a rehearing and if that fails may take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“That is one of our options,'' Pinkard said. “There are many cases where the issue is in play.''
The federal high court has prohibited the execution of mentally disabled inmates as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment, but it has allowed states to determine what constitutes mental disability.
The majority of Florida justices ruled Thursday in Hall's case that they are bound by precedent set in earlier decisions prohibiting anyone with an IQ of 70 or higher from being declared mentally disabled, regardless of other evidence to the contrary.
The Florida Supreme Court in 1989 vacated Hall's original death penalty and ordered a new sentencing hearing. A judge then resentenced Hall to death but declared he was mentally disabled. That, however, was before the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled mentally disabled inmates could not be executed and before Florida passed a law setting the IQ limit.
When Hall later filed another appeal, the same judge ruled he was not mentally disabled because his scores on three IQ test ranged from 71 to 80.
Justice Barbara Pariente sided with the majority in upholding that decision, but she wrote a concurring opinion saying there's no clear national consensus on how to determine mental disability and noting most states do not set a limit based on IQ test scores.
“It is certainly of concern that in some states Hall would be mentally (disabled) by those states' definitions, while in others, like Florida, the bright-line cutoff requires a contrary finding,'' Pariente wrote.
She added that in the future the U.S. Supreme Court may determine such a cutoff is unconstitutional or the Legislature may change the law. Until then, though, the Florida law must be followed, she concluded.
Justices Jorge Labarga and James Perry dissented. Justice Peggy Quince did not participate in the case.
Labarga wrote that he believes the law is unconstitutional, but he also urged the Legislature to re-examine it.
Perry noted that Hall's teachers repeatedly described him as mentally disabled and in two prior rulings the Supreme Court noted that testimony reflected Hall had an IQ of 60 and suffered from organic brain damage.
“Hall is a poster child for mental (disability) claims,'' Perry wrote.
The state law also permits the execution of inmates with IQs below 70 if other evidence indicates they are not mentally disabled.
As a result, the Supreme Court has upheld death sentences of inmates with lower scores because in one case the condemned man was able to obtain a GED diploma and live independently and in another the prisoner could copy letters written by others, sign his own name and work as a cook, garbage collector and dish washer.
In a third case, less credibility was given to an expert who testified that an inmate had an IQ of 69 than those who said he had scored higher.
“If the proscription against executing the mentally (disabled) is to mean anything, it cannot be wielded as this double-edged sword,'' Perry wrote.