His death warrant was signed, and he had already taken an anxiety-calming sedative and said his final goodbyes to his loved ones. But supporters of this Georgia death-row inmate soon became elated after learning that Atlanta’s 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals Court and the Georgia Court of Appeals both granted temporary reprieves just a half hour before Warren Hill’s state-sponsored murder was slated to begin at 7 p.m. on Feb. 19.
In a 2-1 decision, the federal judges decided that more reviews of the doctors’ statements were necessary. Still, Hill faces strict requirements to get his case reconsidered.
“If this were easy, it would have been picked off months ago and not at 6:30 [Tuesday] night,” stated Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “The fact that it was so late, I think, means that it’s going to be a hard fight. But the 11th Circuit said at least there’s some way that he could still prevail.”
With a reported IQ of 70, Hill’s family says that the 53-year-old has displayed symptoms of impaired mental capacity since childhood. He was sentenced to death for the fatal beating of his cellmate, Joseph Handspike, in 1990. He was already serving a life bid for the 1986 slaying of his girlfriend, Myra Wright, who was shot 11 times.
Before the stay of the execution, ex-President Jimmy Carter exclaimed: “Georgia should not violate its own prohibition against executing individuals with seriously diminished capacity.” Back in 1988, Georgia passed a law prohibiting mentally disabled people from being eligible for capital punishment, and in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of mentally impaired offenders was unconstitutional.
“If you can prove that you’re in a class that the Supreme Court has excluded from the death penalty, it’s like proving your innocence,” Dieter said. “I think one thing DNA and all the innocence cases have taught us is that sometimes there just is new evidence that ought to trump procedural bars.”
Three weeks ago, newly sworn statements were provided by the three doctors who diagnosed Hill in 2000 as not being mentally disabled; they had changed their views.
In their new statements, the doctors declared that they were rushed in their initial evaluation, that they had acquired additional experience since then and that more scientific advances have been made in the intervening years.
“In other words, all of the experts–both the state’s and the petitioner’s–now appear to be in agreement that Hill is in fact mentally retarded,” the 11th Circuit judges wrote.
Hill’s attorney, Brian Kammer, released the following statement: “As new affidavits in our recent petition show, Mr. Hill’s diagnosis of mental retardation is now unanimous among all the doctors who have examined him.”
The state questioned the doctors’ credibility, saying they hadn’t seen Hill in over a decade.
Lily Hughes, the national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, commented: “Georgia law apparently requires defendants to prove their mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt. However, IQ levels are just one factor used to determine someone’s mental capacity, and there are often no clear procedures or even guidelines to make these critical determinations. States use this vagueness in the law to continue to execute people with demonstrable mental retardation in a gross mockery of ‘justice’ in the United States.”
The following Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the Georgia attorney general’s request to lift the stay of execution.
“This is the cruelest thing imaginable, to put the prisoner and his family through this emotional roller coaster,” said Sara Totonchi of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “The disgrace that is the death penalty in Georgia was abundantly evident on Tuesday night.”