U.S. Supreme Court Hears Death Penalty Case Of Man Ruled Mentally Retarded

Issues Of Mental Retardation And Cruel & Unusual Punishment At Heart Of 1978 Case

The United States Supreme Court heard arguments March 3 in the case of a Florida man who was convicted in 1978 of killing a pregnant woman and a sheriff’s deputy. We first wrote of the case in December.

Freddie Lee Hall

Freddie Lee Hall

The case involves Freddie Lee Hall, who had been found mentally retarded but still sentenced to death. The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it was cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone who is mentally retarded, but the justices did not issue a ruling about what actually makes a person mentally retarded. That meant the states had to set their own standard. In Florida, the legislature decided that anyone with an I.Q. of 70 or lower would be considered retarded. Other states have their own standards.

Fort Lauderdale defense attorney Glenn Roderman said, “In the Hall v. Florida case, the U.S. Supreme Court is again addressing the death penalty in murder cases as it applies to the condemned, ‘mentally retarded,’ with hopefully a uniform standard that can be applied by all states in the same way. States like Florida, Georgia and Texas are going to have to be restricted in how they define ‘mental retardation’ in these types of capital cases.”

The reason the Hall v. Florida case has ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court is that Hall, himself, had been ruled in 1992 to be mentally retarded, long before the state of Florida passed a law that set the so-called “bright line” cutoff for the I.Q. Florida’s Supreme Court refused to vacate the death sentence in Hall’s case, despite the conflict. That resulted in the appeal to the U.S. high court.

Glenn R. Roderman

Glenn R. Roderman

There were those on the Florida Supreme Court who disagreed with the majority ruling, however. Justice James E.C. Perry was one of those. He wrote, “The current interpretation of the statutory scheme will lead to the execution of a retarded man in this case. Hall had been found by the courts to be mentally retarded before the statute was adopted. Once the statute is applied, Hall morphs from someone who has been ‘mentally retarded his entire life’ to someone who is statutorily barred from attempting to demonstrate concurrent deficits in adaptive functioning to establish retardation.”

Mr. Roderman, who has represented defendants accused of capital crimes, said he thinks it is time for the court to resolve this issue once and for all. “I sincerely believe the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is crying out for the right answer:  ‘No Death to the Mentally Retarded’,” he said.

The Supreme Court released the audio and transcripts of the March 3 hearing on Friday, March 7, during the court’s regular weekly website update. The transcript and audio may be viewed and heard at the SCOTUS website.

Editor’s note: this page has been updated to reflect the week-ending updates from the Supreme Court docket. Updated March 10, 2014.