Clemency Justified For Warren Hill

Today’s Courier Herald Column. I’m posting early today, as this meeting is about to get underway.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles will meet today at 9am to decide the fate of Warren Hill.  By the time you read this, we may well already know their decision.

Hill is scheduled to die at Georgia’s correctional facility in Jackson by lethal injection Wednesday evening.  His sentence is the result of murdering his girlfriend, then later killing a fellow inmate.  At dispute is whether Hill, who has an IQ of 70, was and is mentally disabled.  Georgia has a very narrow definition of mentally disabled in such cases, and various courts have differed over Hill’s actual condition.

In Georgia, the Pardons and Paroles board has the authority to move forward with executions or offer clemency.  The design is to take the politics out of the process, as well as to remove the power from just one person.  The Governor, under Georgia law, is powerless to stop an execution.

Yet death penalty cases and executions are far from political events.  They are now media driven, and facts are often malleable when generating sympathy for the soon to be executed members of death row.

Georgia had a front row seat to this spectacle last fall during the execution of Troy Davis.  Media accounts would have those unfamiliar with the case believe that there was no physical evidence linking Davis to the murder of Savannah police officer Mark McPhail.  They also created an illusion that witnesses had recounted their testimony, which was much more of a product of witness harassment years after the trial than any doubt or new testimony from those who were key to the case.

Georgia has perhaps an upcoming media disaster with yet another death penalty case as well.  It was reported this week that Columbus’ notorious Stocking Strangler was cleared in two of his cases by DNA evidence.  Carlton Gary’s lawyers are asking for a new trial. Georgia’s death penalty is likely to be on trial as well.

It must be understood that maintaining the death penalty under current conditions is not only about getting the law correct.  It now also requires an understanding of media and public relations.  On this front, the death penalty is losing.

Executing a man who is mentally disabled will not help Georgia maintain and preserve the option of a death penalty.  Quite conversely, it may speed its demise.

Added to the question of Hill’s mental condition is the balance of victim’s rights in the case.  The Troy Davis execution was necessary because the post trial obfuscations neither changed the law, nor the justice for the McPhail family.  Hill’s victim, Joseph Handspike, has few living relatives, yet those that are have asked for mercy in this case. 

Nephew and family spokesperson Richard Handspike has written a detailed affidavit on behalf of his family noting that at no time was his family asked for victim impact statements or even informed of Hill’s trial proceedings.  He notes that the family does “not want Mr. Hill to be executed, and we believe a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is an appropriate and just resolution for this case and for us as the family of Joseph Handspike.” 

Richard Handspike included details that he was not a distant relative, and was in fact close to the victim.  He also was the family member that was called to the prison to identify his Uncle’s body.  He is not a contrived prop being trotted out by a desperate defense team.

At the end of the day, justice is not about carrying out the maximum sentence possible.  It is about balancing the needs of a society and the rights of the victim.  Georgia gains nothing, and the victim’s family appears to be further harmed, if this execution is allowed to go forward.

If victim’s rights are to matter when the family wants death, then they should also matter when a family wants clemency.  Executing a mentally retarded man against the wishes of the victim’s family appears to meet the burden of cruel and unusual punishment, with the cruelty magnified onto the victim’s family.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles should reduce the sentence of Warren Hill to live in prison without the possibility of parole.  It’s what is best for Georgia, and, perhaps more importantly, what is best for Richard Handspike and his family.


  1. Bob Loblaw says:

    Left a few facts out. The law may be in need of an update, but Hill murdered another man. He knew what he was doing. And in all candor, at law, how a victim’s family member may “feel” about a death sentence for the murderer should have no relevance. What’s the purpose of a law governing a state of nine million if one person’s feelings can eviserate it?

    From the AP:
    The state has cited expert testimony and IQ tests that concluded Hill is not mentally disabled. Before trial, Hill’s family members described him as “the leader of the family” and “a father figure,” the state notes. He was not in special education classes and served in the Navy, where he received promotions, the state has said.

    The defense has referenced a state court judge’s assessment that Hill was mentally disabled and a test that shows his IQ to be about 70. The defense has also cited expert testimony that it is not unusual for someone who is mildly mentally disabled to be able to function at a satisfactory level in an environment as structured as the military.

        • mountainpass says:

          [A high school friend, who at the time of trial was working as an electrical engineer for Scientific Atlanta designing telecommunication systems, described Hill as “bright,” “sharp,” “mature” and “level-headed.” Evidence also showed that, following the completion of high school, Hill entered the Navy where he rose to the rank of Seaman Second Class.

          While incarcerated for the murder of his girlfriend, Petitioner was evaluated for prison and it was determined that he was of average intelligence or better, and that, “inmate Hill’s intelligence level (could) support skilled and semi-skilled training and an average degree of work status and responsibility.” ]

          • Calypso says:

            You do know that Seaman Second Class is the next to lowest rank in the Navy, right? It’s not like he worked his way up to Rear Admiral, or something.

      • Bob Loblaw says:

        @ chamblee54: please allow me to rephrase. Relevant was a poor choice of words, especially for a lawyer with my immense talent.

        Their “feelings” are relevant in the sentencing phase of a murder trial. What I meant to convey was that the weight given to the feelings of the victim’s family should not be such that a Judge or one reviewing the sentence not be able to order or reverse a death sentence under the law.

        The theory is similar to seating a jury in a capital murder case. Opinions about the death penalty are frequently asked, because if the juror is 100% against the death penalty and in no way would ever impose it, they cannot impartially serve. A victim’s family member may have the same feelings. That should not weaken the law.

      • benevolus says:

        Yeah, that’s it. Not wanting to execute him is THE SAME AS wanting to set him free!

        How is killing him “justice”? He’s been caught, convicted, imprisoned. Isn’t that justice? I think you mean “revenge”. Old Testament “eye for an eye”.

        • mountainpass says:

          So (gasp) you want to keep a mentally retarded man in a cage for the rest of his life?

            • mountainpass says:

              Charlie “My give a damn is busted” on these events. He had his day in court, but now the media wants to hold court again. He’s not mental as Bob pointed out he was promoted in the service. We have housed and fed him for 22 years, get on with it already. And while we are at it let’s streamline the system and reduce the death row population.

              I’ll buy the rope.

              • Charlie says:

                Acutally, we’re not arguing the facts. We’re determining the reasonableness of the sentence based on the facts.

                If you want to preserve the death penalty as a viable option, then executing a mentally retarded man isn’t the way to do it. Instead, this case is quite likely to become the benchmark for new “cruel and unusual punishment” challenges.

                Furthermore, I can’t recall a death penalty case that expressly refused to involve the victim’s family in the sentencing phase. While you’re give a damn may be busted, theirs isn’t. As I wrote above, Mark McPhail’s family was as much of a reason as any to not bend to public pressure in the Troy Davis case. The Handspike family has an equal weighting for me in this case.

                • mountainpass says:

                  Again I am doubting the “mental” charge. The jury ruled on this, they considered this, they decided already.

                  • Charlie says:

                    For five years, my family took custody of my cousin whose IQ registered exactly 70. It was incredibly frustrating because of the various measures used to get him into any sort of education, training, or other programs to assist him in any way. Under 70 is clear. Over 75 is clear. But peg at 70 and you’re lost in a no man’s land.

                    The legal rulings in this case have strattled the same issue. Different courts interpreted 70 differently. Ultimately, it’s the Pardons and Parole’s board determination that not only is the law correct, but is the sentence just.

                    Having had the experience up close and personal with the limitations of someone with a 70 IQ, I will contend that an execution in this case is not.

                    • mountainpass says:

                      Charlie I’m not arguing the number, I’m just not buying that he has an IQ of 70. A “leader of the family”, “father figure”, “promoted in the Navy” does not sound like the case you are presenting.

                    • Charlie says:

                      OK, now my give a damn is busted becauase in this same sub-thread you’re arguing that it’s better to execute a retarded person than keep him in a cage, but also that he’s not really retarded.

                    • mountainpass says:

                      Charlie wrote: “OK, now my give a damn is busted becauase in this same sub-thread you’re arguing that it’s better to execute a retarded person than keep him in a cage, but also that he’s not really retarded.”

                      I should have put quotes around “mentally retarded”. I was unable to edit after posting. Not sure why.

            • Calypso says:

              Gee George, tell me about the farm. I can tend to them rabbits and I’ll feed them everyday.

  2. Judith says:

    When Warren was on trial in 1991 the option of life without parole was not available. Several jurors have stated that if evidence that they subsequently learned of was available demonstrating that he is significantly intellectually limited, including an undisputed IQ of 70 they would have indicated that life without parole was most appropriate for Warren Hill.

    Also, justice is not served for the family as mountainpass suggests when Mr. Handspike a representative for the family has said, “his family feels strongly that persons with any kind of significant mental disabilities should not be put to death. … We do not want Mr. Hill to be executed and we believe a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is an appropriate and just resolution of this case.”

  3. jiminga says:

    “Executing a man who is mentally disabled” is misleading. It says a low IQ is a disability making moral judgements impossible. In other words, one can only know right from wrong if one is brilliant. Balderdash! That elitist belief is way too common these days.

    Hill murdered two people. I have never met him but I’ll bet he knew that was wrong.

  4. ZazaPachulia says:

    I’m not going to argue with Charlie on this one, but I would certainly scratch “help Georgia maintain and preserve the option of a death penalty” from my list of reasons why Georgia should not execute Warren Hill.

    • USA1 says:

      Deterrent, schmeterrent. I don’t care.

      Prison is for punishment, not rehabilitation. Execution is for punishment, not deterrence.

      Considering rehabilitation and deterrence is just buying into liberal fantasies. It’s the same kind of misguided thinking that has so-called conservatives trumpeting the NRA as if that’s what why the second amendment was passed.

      • dorian says:

        Wow, if Icarus wrote something 4 years ago, it must be true. It’s actually quite tiresome to constantly have to listen to the blather of people whose knowledge of the law comes from reading articles and tv sound bytes, who don’t bother with trial transcripts, unified appeal briefs, case law, or anything which might actually be of substantive value, but who with nothing more than a hand full of anecdotal evidence and some form of bully pulpit constantly tell the rest of us how the legal system ought to run. You don’t approve. Everyone gets it. If it were Gacie, you’d probably lament over how he was just some poor misunderstood clown with a detachment disorder. If it were Dalmer, he’d be some poor guy with an eating disorder. If it were Bundy, he’d have rejection issues and an unhappy childhood. Everyone had problems, not everyone beats cell mates into patte’. From my own anecdotal evidence, I’ve worked with mentally handicapped people, none of them tried to kill me. Not once.

        • Charlie says:

          Wow. You met a mentally handicapped person. How quaint.

          If you actually read the article, you would see that I referenced the recent Troy Davis/McPhail case. Wrote several articles on that one too. All about how Troy Davis was guilty and why justice meant the death penalty for him.

          Kind of blows your entire “tiresome” argument above out of the water. Thanks for playing.

          • dorian says:

            Declaring yourself the winner sorta ranks up there with being the only person who laughs at your own jokes and calling yourself “cool” when you in fact, sleep in Batman underoos. You can do it, but it’ pretty meaningless. To clarify, when I said “tiresome” what I actually meant is “tiresome to me”. In this regard, it in no way blows anything I said out of the water, since I more or less generalized the whole article as “death penalty bad. compassion for murderers good. killing murders bad.” So I objected to your generalization, and you objected to my generalizing your generalization. Now, I’m going to drink some scotch and ponder some other deep mysteries of the universe.

  5. saltycracker says:

    Let’s not forget the economics and impact of having a death penalty.

    There were 43 executions in 2011 in the U.S.
    There are about 3,200 prisoners on death row.
    The average inmate spends 15 years on death row between sentencing and execution.
    The numbers thay die by suicide or natural causes is on the rise.

    Capital punishment comes at great cost to the public, a career for many with a cost/benefit ratio that stinks.

    We have made such a political/legal mess out of capital punishment that it is time to end it.
    Life imprisonment, no TV…..

    Since the primary benefit is public jobs, a lot of lawyers, judges and legal support staff would be hurt……..

  6. The Comma Guy says:

    Folks do realize that this was the case of a guy in prison for MURDER committing another MURDER while in prison serving a life, with parole, sentence?

    From the AG’s press release:
    In August of 1990, Hill and the victim, Joseph Handspike, were both incarcerated for murder at the Lee Correctional Institution (hereinafter Lee C.I.). Hill was serving a life sentence for murdering his 18-year-old girlfriend, Myra Wright, in 1986 by shooting her eleven times.

    During Hill’s trial for the Handspike’s murder, a Lee C.I. correctional officer testified that at 5:10 a.m., he heard a loud noise emanating from the inmates’ sleeping quarters in Wing C. Upon entering the wing to investigate, the officer witnessed Hill bludgeoning the victim, who was lying in his bed. The officer quickly returned to his station, called for backup, and opened the security gate to allow other officers to enter and assist. He then returned to the scene and saw that Hill had ceased beating the victim. The officer demanded that Hill surrender his weapon, and Hill complied handing over the board he had used in the beating.

    A correctional officer and the other witness testified that the victim was attacked while he was sleeping, and that he was unable to defend himself. Witnesses testified the board used to murder the victim was a “2 x 6 that had been trimmed down to a leg,” and that the board had been a support for a sink in the bathroom of Wing C at the institution. In addition, there was testimony that several nails protruded from one end of the board.

    Warren Lee Hill shot and killed Myra Wright with a handgun. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. The evidence shows that Hill, Wright, and several other people were gathered on a public sidewalk. Hill withdrew a pistol from his clothing and, without warning or provocation, shot the victim. Although wounded, Wright ran from Hill, who pursued her and continued to shoot. The victim collapsed, and Hill stood over her prostrate form and fired several more rounds into her body. Wright died almost immediately, having been shot eleven times.
    He brutally ended the lives of two people. To me, falling asleep with a prick in your arm and never waking up is a fair deal.

    • Harry says:

      The Speedy Trial Clause per Wikipedia:

      The Speedy Trial Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy . . . trial . . . .”[1] The Clause protects the defendant from delay between the presentation of the indictment or similar charging instrument and the beginning of trial.
      In Barker v. Wingo (1972), the Supreme Court developed a four-part test that considers the length of the delay, the reasons for the delay, the defendant’s assertion of his right to a speedy trial, and the prejudice to the defendant. A violation of the Speedy Trial Clause is cause for dismissal with prejudice of a criminal case.

      It appears to me that the entire spectacle of a capital murder trial is unconstitutional. It’s unjust to the accused, the victim’s family, and the taxpayers alike. It has become a lawyers’ feast of motions and fine arguments. Just another example how society is falling apart. Let’s advocate for fair but speedy justice. For convicted murderers, the gallows or a firing squad is appropriate and not really more cruel than injection, and would likely have a deterrent effect on impressionable youth who may contemplate a criminal act.

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