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Justices take case on mental disability

Fla. death penalty eligibility at stake

WASHINGTON — Eleven years after the Supreme Court barred states from executing mentally disabled inmates, the justices said Monday they will take up a Florida case over how authorities determine who is eligible to be put to death.

The outcome could answer a question left unresolved by the court’s 6-to-3 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, the 2002 case that spares the mentally disabled from the death penalty. The ruling essentially left it to states to decide whether an inmate is mentally disabled.

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The case under review is an appeal of a Florida Supreme Court ruling that upheld the death sentence for Freddie Lee Hall, who scored just above the state’s cutoff for mental disability as measured by IQ tests.

Hall was sentenced to death for killing Karol Hurst, a 21-year-old pregnant woman who was abducted leaving a grocery store in 1978.

Florida law prohibits anyone with an IQ of 70 or higher from being classified as mentally disabled, regardless of other evidence. Hall’s scores on three IQ tests ranged from 71 to 80.

Florida is one of nine death-penalty states with a strict IQ limit, said Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente. The others are: Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington.

Pariente voted with the majority to uphold Hall’s sentence but noted there is no national consensus on how to determine mental disability.

The US Supreme Court will hear arguments on it next year.

Hall’s case has bounced around the Florida courts for decades. In 1989, the Florida Supreme Court threw out 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 took place before the 2002 US Supreme Court ruling that said executing a mentally disabled inmate violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment 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 IQ tests topped 70.

Hall has been in prison for more than 35 years, almost all of it under a death sentence. He and another man, Mack Ruffin, were prosecuted for forcing Hurst to drive from a Pantry Pride parking lot in central Florida’s Leesburg to a wooded area, where she was sexually assaulted and shot to death.

The pair also were convicted of killing a sheriff’s deputy. Ruffin also initially was sentenced to death, but his penalty later was changed to life in prison.

In a separate matter, lawyers for a craft store chain have asked the US Supreme Court to take up the company’s lawsuit against the federal health care law’s requirement that coverage include access to the morning-after pill.

In July, US District Judge Joe Heaton granted the Hobby Lobby chain and its sister company, Mardel Christian bookstore, a temporary exemption from a requirement that it provide insurance coverage for morning-after pills, similar emergency birth-control methods, and intrauterine devices.

The Department of Health and Human Services in September filed a notice in federal court saying it would appeal that decision. Lawyers for the companies’ owners, the Green Family, are asking the Supreme Court to take up the case because of what they say are conflicting decisions by other courts regarding religious freedom.

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