Wednesday, Sep 03, 2014
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High court to take up 35-year-old murder case

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BROOKSVILLE - In 1978, Freddie Lee Hall and another man were convicted of killing a 21-year-old pregnant Sumter County woman after kidnapping her from a grocery store.

Hall and the other man, Mark Ruffin, drove off in the woman's car and came to Hernando County where they shot and killed Hernando County sheriff's deputy Lonnie Coburn outside a Ridge Manor convenience store.

Convicted murderer Mark Ruffin got life in prison for the crime. The man with him, Freddie Lee Hall, received a death sentence that has yet to be carried out.

One of the issues delaying that execution is Hall's IQ, which has been disputed through the years. The Florida Supreme Court said in 1992 that Hall's IQ was 60, which prompted questions as to whether he was mentally competent to be put to death and if it would be cruel and unusual punishment.

But the Florida attorney general's office has argued that Hall's IQ is above 70, which would not put him in the mentally incapacitated range.

Hall's attorney filed a brief challenging the state's guidelines and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed this week to hear his case. The decision could establish new state guidelines as to what constitutes a person's mental fitness when given the death penalty.

Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said he and all law enforcement will be watching carefully the outcome of the court, which is expected to take up the matter next year, because of the potential ramifications.

Nienhuis said IQ tests should not be the sole factor in determining whether someone should be executed.

"I think we get in a difficult area when we start having a cutoff that differentiates automatically a person's ability to know right from wrong," Nienhuis said.

When Hall, now 68, was given an IQ test to determine if he was mentally fit to be executed, he scored just above the state's cutoff for mental disability.

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

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 U.S. 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 more than 35 years, almost all of it under a death sentence. Ruffin also initially was sentenced to death, but his penalty later was changed to life in prison.

Nienhuis said there are many people in the community who knew Coburn and would like justice to be served.

"This is a case where a young lady, who I understand was an expectant mother, was brutally killed after being raped and beaten," Nienhuis said. "Then later that same night, a deputy sheriff who approached these individuals was disarmed and killed with his own gun. If there isn't a better case for the death penalty, I don't know what it is."

"As a society, we need to send a clear message that if you do (something like this), you will pay with your life," he said.

U.S. Congressman and former Hernando County Sheriff Rich Nugent said he knows the Coburn killing is still fresh in the minds of that family and it is still painful to them.

"These guys (Hall and Ruffin) should have paid the price a long time ago," Nugent said.

Material from the Association Press was used in this report.

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