Sunday, October 27, 2013

11 Years in the Making: The Case of Freddie Hall

Editor's Note: For legal purposes, the Court refers to those with mental disabilities as mentally retarded. My distaste for a word that is used too often as an epithet has resulted in me referring to Mr. Hall as mentally disabled and other inmates in similar cases as such.

Freddie Hall is sitting on Florida's
death row for the kidnapping
& murder of a store clerk in 1978.
It was announced last week that the United States Supreme Court will hear the case Hall v. Florida during the winter session and a decision could come in early summer. Hall's case hinges on whether the states can rely on a single, simply IQ test for determination of mental disability. The court decided in 2002's Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally disabled and in 1986's Coker v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally ill or insane.

It has been an issue since 2002 when the Court ruled in Atkins how the states would determine whether an inmate was disabled. Many have relied on a single IQ test and a threshold of a 70 point IQ to decide whether or not an inmate may be executed. 

 Andrew Cohen wrote in The Atlantic how overdue the hearing of this issue is:
"For over a decade, especially in the South, those rules have been manipulated by local officials and judges in ways that undermine the Court's 2002 landmark ruling in Atkins v. Virginiawhich banned the execution of the mentally disabled—but permitted states to define for themselves that loaded term."
Freddie Hall's case is not unique. It seems every month there is a new case that comes to my attention that regards an inmate awaiting execution who is challenging the constitutionality of their execution based on mental competence. The last case I noted was that of Warren Hill.

That there can be states that define mental disability in a way that is different than their bordering neighbors is ludicrous. That some states like my own can have no route for a defendant to plead guilty by reason of insanity makes it equally frustrating for those of us who believe that justice is blind and, at its core, equal. Unfortunately, we have seen far too often in the history of this country that justice is not equal whether it be from county to county or state to state.

Coinciding with the decision by the Court to hear this decision, I happened to pick up a copy of A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America by Evan J. Mandery (Norton, 2013). It was eye opening in its portrayal of how the justices came to the decision that reinstated the death penalty in the states in 1976. 

Wild Justice addressed the decision in Tison v. Arizona, a 1987 decision that concluded, "that the death penalty could be appropriate for participants in felonies who didn't kill if they nevertheless displayed reckless indifference to human life." This, of course, followed a distinct line from Coker v. Virginia, a 1986 decision that laid the groundwork for the Eighth Amendment argument that executing the mentally disabled could be deemed unconstitutional and indeed, the 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia established just that. I anticipate all three cases will be cited ad nauseam in whatever decision the Court comes to in Hall v. Florida.

Where Cohen, Madery, SCOTUSblog and I all agree is that addressing the underlying issue in Hall v. Florida is long overdue. Unfortunately, the overall issue of capital punishment is not to be addressed by the Court anytime soon. I say unfortunately, not only as someone who opposes the death penalty, but as someone who believes what Justice Antonin Scalia said about the decision to return to the process: "The decision of the constitutionality of capital punishment boiled down to the feelings and intuitions of the justices (p. 460)."

Mandery elaborates more on this in the book, a book a highly recommend to anyone interested in moral justice and the history of the Court on this topic:
"Finally, what if the constitutionality of the death penalty could have been decided by each justice at the end of his life, with the benefit of his full collected wisdom? Almost certainly history would have been changed, for three of the men who decided the 1976 capital cases, including two members of the notorious troika, later changed their views on capital punishment (p. 433)."
We can only hope that when the Court hears Hall v. Florida, they will think seriously about case law and the responsibility we have as moral human beings and not about any ideology, political viewpoint or unsubstantiated feeling. There is room for intuition in Court rulings, but that intuition must be supported by case law and, in this particular case, the meaning of the Eighth Amendment.

As Cohen wrote, "too late for those already dead, perhaps in time for those still living."

For more on Freddie Hall's case, you can visit the Commission on Capital Cases here. Unfortunately, in 2011 the Florida Legislature voted to no longer fund the Commission, but the page exists as an historical reference.

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