Stay Lifted for Warren Hill Despite Intellectual Disability and New Evidence

Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia that people with an intellectual disability are to be excluded from execution because of their reduced culpability, a federal appeals court has ignored that ruling and denied Warren Lee Hill’s petition for the court to consider new evidence that points to his intellectual disability, thus lifting his stay of execution.

Hill, a Georgia death row inmate with an IQ of only 70, came within 30 minutes of being executed this February when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted him a stay of execution to review new affidavits by doctors who changed their minds about his mental capacity. The state court of appeals also issued a stay to allow more time to consider a challenge to Georgia’s lethal injection protocol. Hill was also issued a stay for the same reason just 90 minutes before he was to be executed last July.

The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 vote yesterday that the affidavits of three doctors who originally examined Hill in 2000 testifying that he was not intellectually disabled but who now have changed their diagnoses, are not enough for the court to reconsider his case. Unfortunately, Georgia is the only state that requires defendants to prove their intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt, which experts argue is a nearly impossible standard to meet. Yet as Brian Krammer, Hill’s lawyer, points out, “the new evidence shows that every mental health expert ever to examine him finds that Mr. Hill has mental retardation and is thus ineligible for execution according to the constitution of the United States.”

Astonishingly, the two judges that ruled that the doctors’ changed opinions were not new evidence argued that it would be a dangerous precedent to reopen cases just because previous witnesses decide to change their testimony. The lone dissenting judge, Rosemary Barkett, thought such procedural arguments were ridiculous. “The idea that courts are not permitted to acknowledge that a mistake has been made which would bar an execution is quite incredible for a country that not only prides itself on having the quintessential system of justice but attempts to export it to the world as a model of fairness,” Barkett wrote.

Hill’s case has garnered much attention over the years and people such as former President Jimmy Carter have called for his sentence to be commuted. The family of Joseph Handspike, the victim in the case, has even expressed concern about Hill’s mental condition and said that they do not wish for him to be executed but would rather he receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

It is outrageous that Hill’s execution will proceed despite the overwhelming evidence that it is in violation of the Constitution and goes against the wishes of the victim’s family. How is this justice?

(Photo courtesy of Birmingham Business Journal)

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