Monday, July 16, 2007

Debate leaves man in death row limbo


OCALA - Freddie Lee Hall lives on death row at Union Correctional Institution, and the 61-year-old will die there - of old age, probably.

After all, he's already dodged a date with the executioner for 29 years, despite being convicted of committing crimes prosecutors argued were cold, calculated, premeditated, heinous, atrocious and cruel.

His case has been embroiled in numerous appeals, including his lawyers' insistence that he is mentally retarded. That is an issue that John Evander Couey's lawyer has raised in his defense in his conviction in the rape, abduction and slaying of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

In 1978, Hall and another man abducted a 21-year-old woman from a Leesburg grocery store parking lot, took her to Sumter County and shot her to death.

Hall's co-defendant, Mack Ruffin, was convicted of raping her.

Karol Lea Hurst, who was seven months pregnant, begged for the life of her unborn child. She even wrote them a check, "so you won't have to rob any more stores."

The killing didn't stop with the slaying of of the former high school cheerleader. Hours later, the two men killed Hernando County Sheriff's Deputy Lonnie Coburn during a convenience store robbery.

Key to many of Hall's death sentence appeals has been his lawyers' claims that he is retarded.

Prosecutors dispute the claim, but some Florida Supreme Court justices have agreed with the assessment.

In a 1993 decision, then-Justice Rosemary Barkett wrote in her dissenting opinion that, "testimony reflects that Hall has an IQ of 60; he suffers from organic brain damage, chronic psychosis, a speech impediment and a learning disability; he is functionally illiterate; and he has a short-term memory equivalent to that of a first-grader."

The court noted that the judge and sentencing jury were aware of the claim, despite Hall's claim in court papers that they were not.

There's no doubt that he and his 16 siblings grew up in a hellish household.

Testimony from his surviving siblings (two were murder victims themselves) revealed that his parents fought each other with guns, knives or whatever was handy.

His mother tied him up each night, then woke him up in the morning by hoisting him toward the ceiling and beating him.

Forced to work in the fields, almost from the time they were old enough to walk, the children would sometimes go home at night to find out that she refused to feed them.

Once, she buried Hall to "cure" his asthma, and she left instructions with neighbors to beat him any time they saw him.

In 1989, the state Supreme Court, calling his childhood "pitiful," ordered a new sentencing hearing.

Hall also benefited from a state Supreme Court ruling that said defense attorneys weren't limited to issues mitigating against the death penalty contained solely in the law books.

Hall's lawyers have filed numerous motions for post-conviction relief on various issues, won for him a new evidentiary hearing, a temporary stay of execution and a resentencing on the way to quashing two death warrants.

But jurors at the resentencing still upheld his death sentence.

In 1999, he argued that his appeal lawyer essentially was incompetent in failing to argue the claim that he is mentally retarded.

At the time he made that argument, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Penry v. Lynaugh found that no constitutional ban existed on the execution of mentally retarded criminals.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Atkins v. Virginia, ruled that it would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment to execute retarded prisoners.

But that decision doesn't appear to help Hall, either. That ruling said that states have the right to determine the standards in how they determine retardation.

In Florida, a judge determines whether a person is mentally retarded. Defense attorneys must provide "clear and convincing" evidence that the person has an IQ of less than 70, has problems adapting to their environment and that the condition existed before the age of 18.

In every instance, courts have agreed with prosecutors' expert witnesses who argued that Hall is not retarded.

In 2001, then Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law a ban on executing retarded prisoners, and laid out the steps lawyers must take if they are to claim the exemption. Couey's lawyers have filed those motions, which will be debated at Tuesday's hearing.

Local News Editor Frank Stanfield may be reached at
frank.stanfield@starbannercom or at (352) 867-4105.

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