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.