"An Urgent Plea for Mercy," is the New York Times editorial from the Saturday edition.
The Supreme Court banned the death penalty for mentally retarded offenders a decade ago, but Georgia apparently has not gotten the message. It is the only state with a statute requiring a defendant to meet the unfairly heavy burden of proving retardation beyond a reasonable doubt. This stringent standard could be readily manipulated by experts, resulting in unconstitutional executions.
In a closely divided 4-to-3 ruling, the State Supreme Court wrongly upheld the statute on the grounds that the United States Supreme Court left it to the states to set procedures for deciding on retardation. This unjust procedural requirement effectively denies protection for the mentally impaired, as required by the Eighth Amendment.
This week, Georgia issued a warrant to execute Warren Lee Hill Jr., a death-row inmate convicted of murder, who has an I.Q. of 70. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles is the fail-safe in the state’s criminal justice system, with a mandate to exercise mercy when the court system has failed to come to a just result. That is clearly true in this case. The trial judge found that Mr. Hill was mentally retarded by applying the fairer “preponderance of the evidence” standard in determining his mental impairment.
The State Supreme Court, however, ruled that Mr. Hill had to prove his mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt. The dissent rightly argued that applying the tougher standard is unconstitutional because it imposes too high a risk that a court’s conclusion will be wrong.
"More calls for death row inmate Warren Hill to be spared," is by Christopher Seward for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The cause of Georgia death row inmate Warren Hill, who faces execution next month, received national attention this week after a New York Times editorial called on the state to spare the mentally disabled man.
Although a state judge found that Hill more likely than not was mentally disabled when he killed inmate Joseph Handspike, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed that ruling because it said Hill had not proven he was mentally disabled beyond a reasonable doubt. His execution was then ordered.
Georgia is the only state in the country that sets such a high burden of proof for capital cases involving defendants who claim mental retardation.
Hill's death sentence was upheld on appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court also declined to review the case.
"State sets execution for inmate judged mentally disabled," was the July 3 Journal-Constitution article by Bill Rankin.
The state of Georgia has scheduled the execution of Warren Hill, who sits on death row even though a State Court judge previously found him to be mentally disabled.
A death warrant signed Monday calls for Hill to be put to death by lethal injection during a one-week period that begins at noon July 18. The Department of Corrections is expected to set the date soon.
Hill is on death row for bludgeoning to death fellow inmate Joseph Handspike with a nail-studded board in 1990. At the time, Hill was serving a life sentence at the Lee Correctional Institution for killing his girlfriend.
"Executing Warren Hill, a 52-year-old man whom a court has found to be more likely than not mentally retarded, would be a terrible miscarriage of justice," said Brian Kammer, one of Hill's lawyers. Kammer said he will ask the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Hill clemency.
In 1988, Georgia became the first state in the nation to ban executions of the mentally disabled. Lawmakers enacted the law in response to the 1986 execution of Jerome Bowden, who had been found to have the mentality of a 12-year-old.
In passing the law, the Legislature required capital defendants to prove "mental retardation" beyond a reasonable doubt, the same standard required of juries to convict someone of a crime. Today, Georgia is the only state in the country that sets such a high burden of proof for such claims.
When the U.S. Supreme Court barred executions of the mentally disabled in 2002, it left it up to the states to set their own guidelines.
Hill's problem is that a State Court judge found Hill to be mentally disabled, but under the lowest legal threshold — by a preponderance of the evidence (or more likely than not).
Earlier coverage of Warren Hill and Georgia's standard for mental retardation begins at the link.
As I often point out, mental retardation is now generally referred to as a developmental or intellectual disability. Because it has a specific meaning with respect to capital cases, I continue to use the older term.