In a democracy, the responsibility for a government’s actions ultimately rest with its citizens. Tonight, a mentally disabled man was killed in our name.
Tonight, our state will put Warren Lee Hill to death.
Peach Pundit has covered his case before. In 1986, he shot Myra Wright, his girlfriend, 11 times and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Four years later, he bludgeoned a fellow prisoner (Joseph Handspike) to death with a nail-studded spike. The details of these murders aren’t in contention.
The nature of the man who committed them is. Based on the reports of seven doctors, Mr. Hill has an IQ of 70, placing him on the border of intellectual disability (formerly referred to as mental retardation.) Though four doctors have always maintained he was disabled, three others declared in 2000 that Mr. Hill was not disabled based on two interviews and six days of consideration. In 2013, those three doctors signed an affidavit affirming that Mr. Hill was intellectually disabled based on advances in behavioral psychology and new materials on his mental state. Yet state courts have ruled this reversal legally irrelevant because it is not based on new evaluations of Hill.
In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the execution of “mentally retarded persons” is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” In May of last year, a 5-4 ruling expanded this decision by striking down Florida’s “bright line” policy that found anyone with an IQ north of 70 intellectually capable. Libertarian-leaning Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number. Courts must recognize, as does the medical community, that the IQ test is imprecise….”
Since a 1967 public school test, Mr. Hill’s mental capabilities have been questioned; he ranked in the bottom 2% of the population. Since 1991 (longer than I’ve been alive), Mr. Hill has lived under a death sentence. His last day has come and passed three times now, most recently in 2013 due to a court ruling on the chemicals involved in executions. Numerous individuals and organizations of stature have come out against his execution, including former President Carter, the GA Bar Association, the state NAACP chapter, the ACLU, the Council of Europe, the Archbishop of Atlanta, and, most importantly, the victim’s family, who were never consulted about the case.
In any other state, Mr. Hill’s condition would prevent his death. Based on the “preponderance of evidence” test used in death-mad states like Texas and Oklahoma, the four doctors testifying on his behalf would be more than enough to reduce his punishment to life without parole. The recanting of their testimony by the three doctors that testified for the state would put the matter beyond question. Yet Georgia’s standard for mental disability is the near-impossible “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
That standard clearly contradicts the spirit of the Court’s 2014 Hall v. Florida ruling cited above. Government has no power greater than the power to order death; recognizing that, the Supreme Court has limited that power in regards to those who straddle the line between the competent and those who have “the mental capacity of a child.” Better safe than cruel.
This morning, the Georgia Parole Board refused to grant clemency to Mr. Hill. On January 20th, the Georgia Supreme Court denied further hearings. Hill’s lawyers have made their final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping that they will grant a stay before his 7 P.M. execution. Given the court’s restrictive ruling in Hall v. Florida, his attorneys face a potential nightmare scenario: that his execution will be ruled illegal after his death.
Since at least the 1992 death of Ricky Ray Rector (who died so that Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton could become president and famously saved the pecan pie from his last meal “for later”), mental deficiency and Southern executions have been tied in the national and international conscious. It shows up in Family Guy gags and lazy stand-up routines; it has become one of the region’s many clichés. Given our recent obsession with the state’s image and competitiveness, one would expect the state’s power structure to move against the execution if only to prevent the slew of news coverage. Indeed, Charlie has written that “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.”
Those who are not capable of understanding the consequences of their actions should not bear the ultimate punishment. Let us hope that the Supreme Court spares us this barbarism.