Nation & World News

Supreme Court Will Hear Case On Executions And Mental Disability

By Bill Chappell on October 21st, 2013

The standard by which a person is judged to be mentally competent enough to face execution for a crime will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed Monday to hear a Florida case revolving around that issue.

The capital punishment case, Hall, Freddie L. v. Fla., centers on the standard for judging mental disability and how state officials arrive at that judgment. The case will be argued in Washington early in 2014.

“In the new case, attorneys for Freddie Lee Hall contended that Florida courts have adopted a ‘bright line’ rule that a person is not mentally retarded unless their IQ falls below 70,” reports SCOTUSblog. “The state Supreme Court found that Hall had an IQ of 71. In an earlier stage of Hall’s case, before the Supreme Court had decided the Atkins case, he had been found to be mentally retarded, the petition said.”

Last December, Florida’s Supreme Court affirmed Hall’s death sentence in a ruling that included its earlier finding that, “While there is no doubt that [Hall] has serious mental difficulties, is probably somewhat retarded, and certainly has learning difficulties and a speech impediment, the Court finds that [Hall] was competent at the resentencing hearings.”

Hall was condemned to die for the 1978 murder of Karol Hurst, who was 21 and pregnant when she was abducted after visiting a grocery store. He was tried separately from an accomplice, who was sentenced to life in prison. The pair were also blamed for killing a sheriff’s deputy.

This past summer, Florida executed John Errol Ferguson; the U.S. high court had denied his request for an appeals hearing based on claims of long-standing mental illness.

A Christian Science Monitor story about Ferguson’s case sums up some of the questions revolving around capital punishment and mental competence:

“Because the death penalty is a form of state-authorized retribution for crime, it is essential that the condemned prisoner appreciate the significance of the punishment, legal experts say. Without that appreciation, the process would lack any retributive purpose and amount to a government killing without an accepted justification. T hat would violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, according to legal experts.”

In 2002, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that bans the execution of people deemed to be mentally retarded.

The court agreed to hear Hall’s case Monday morning, in issuing its Order List. In that list, the court said it will hear a case on penalties for bank fraud. It also requested additional information about a separate case involving the U.S. government’s authority to punish foreign banks for not turning over data that are protected by secrecy laws.

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