"A Rare Plea to the Court," is the title of Jesse Wegman's latest Editorial Notebook column in the Sunday New York Times. Here's an extended excerpt:
The Supreme Court’s next term is full of big-ticket issues — from campaign finance to affirmative action to the separation of powers — but a largely overlooked death-penalty appeal the court hasn’t agreed to hear yet could clarify how broadly it views its ultimate power to stop unjust executions.
In 1990 Warren Lee Hill beat a man to death with a nail-studded board, and the state of Georgia sentenced him to die.
Mr. Hill is intellectually disabled, according to all seven mental health experts who have examined him. The Supreme Court banned the execution of intellectually disabled people in 2002, but Mr. Hill remains on death row, trapped by a welter of state and federal laws that prevent him from proving his condition in court. He escaped execution in July only because a state court judge didn’t appreciate Georgia’s attempt to keep secret the drug protocol it planned to use to kill him.
One hurdle for Mr. Hill is that while four of the seven mental health experts originally found that he met the criteria for mild mental retardation, three did not. Georgia requires intellectual disability to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt — an arguably unconstitutional standard no other state uses. Presumably it is possible to meet this standard. Either way, Georgia courts said a four-three split was not enough. But last year the three experts against Mr. Hill recanted. Seven to zero sounds like a winner, but it didn’t matter, a federal appeals court said, since Mr. Hill was blocked by another law that strictly limits multiple appeals on the same claim.
So Mr. Hill filed a direct appeal to the Supreme Court — a rare request the court even more rarely grants — asking it to order the lower courts to weigh the new evidence. On Sept. 30, the court will consider whether to hear Mr. Hill’s petition. It has been reluctant in the past to exercise this power, but this case is exceptional. At stake is not only a man’s life, but the court’s own authority, which continues to be skirted by states like Georgia and Texas, where the 2002 ruling on intellectual disability is similarly subverted by an unscientific standard.
Earlier coverage of Warren Hill's case begins at the link.
Because it has a specific meaning with respect to capital cases, I continue to use the older term on the website. More on Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling banning the execution of those with mental retardation, is via Oyez.