The Common Good

Cruel and Unusual: Georgia Set to Execute Mentally Disabled Man

Warren Hill. Image via the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Warren Hill. Image via the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Despite protests not only from jurors who conivicted him but also from his victim’s family, Warren Hill, a 52-year-old mentally disabled man convicted of murder, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on July 23 in Jackson, Ga.

In 1991, a jury found Hill guilty in the bludgeoning to death a fellow inmate, Joseph Handspike, and sentenced him to death. Hill had been serving a life sentence for the 1986 killing of his girlfriend at the time of Handspike's death.

Hill has an I.Q. of about 70, leading a state judge to find him "mentally retarded" by a “preponderance of the evidence.”

While Georgia — as the rest of the United States — has banned executing mentally retarded inmates, the state has a stricter standard that requires proving mental retardation “beyond a reasonable doubt.” By that standard, in a 4-3 vote, the Georgia Supreme Court overruled the judge's finding of mental retardation, reversed the decision, and reinstated Hill’s death sentence, which originally had been set for today.

Last year, by a vote of 7-4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the Georgia Supreme Court's decision. Writing for the majority, Judge Frank Hull said federal law "mandates that this federal court leave the Georgia Supreme Court decision alone — even if we believe it incorrect or unwise."

Hill’s attorneys filed a petition for clemency on Monday with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. On Tuesday, that petition was denied.

But Hill's execution has been postponed a few days (until next Monday) while the state Board of Corrections makes adjustments to its lethal-injection protocol — switching for an execution cocktail of three drugs to a single drug, phenobarbital.

"I am horrified and outraged by the Board’s decision to deny clemency for Warren Hill, a man found by numerous experts, including the state’s experts, as well as the courts to be mentally disabled,” Brian Kammer. Hill’s lawyer, said in a statement. "This shameful decision violates Georgia’s and our nation’s moral values and renders meaningless state and federal constitutional protections against wrongful execution of persons with mental retardation."

In a stay of execution motion filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, lawyers for Hill argue that, “any hope that Georgia’s clemency procedures would act as a ‘fail safe’ to ‘correct injustices that the ordinary criminal process seems unable or unwilling to consider,’ has disintegrated this morning with the denial of executive clemency.”

The victim’s family, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, President Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn Carter, the editorial board of the New York Times, Amnesty International and various other advocacy groups across the political spectrum, have called for Hill's sentence to be commuted to life without parole.

So far, all calls for justice have been denied.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court banned executions of those with intellectual disabilities. The decision read that the court was:

“… not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty. Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of our “evolving standards of decency,” we therefore conclude that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution ‘places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life’ of a mentally retarded offender.”

However, the court left it up to states to determine the guidelines by which mental disability is measured. Georgia’s guidelines are the strictest in the nation.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more 60 people with mental illness or retardation have been executed in the United States since 1983, and an estimated that 5 to 10 percent of Death Row inmates today suffer from serious mental illness.

While it is unconstitutional to execute the insane, those suffering from other or lesser mental illnesses are insufficiently protected under the law.

The Supreme Court calls the act Georgia is poised to take in executing a man who — in 49 other states — clearly would be considered mentally retarded, “excessive” according to our “evolving standards of decency.”

Indeed, it is “cruel and unusual punishment.” Clearly, Georgia has yet to evolve.

Sandi Villarreal is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners. Follow Sandi on Twitter @Sandi.

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