Georgia inmate executed after Supreme Court declines appeal

Lawyers for Warren Lee Hill argued he had an intellectual disability that rendered his execution unconstitutional. Mr. Hill was sentenced to death after being convicted of the murder of his cellmate in a Georgia prison.

Ben Gray/AP
William Ivory protests against the execution of Warren Lee Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, on the steps of the State Capitol in Atlanta. The Supreme Court has refused to halt the execution of Hill whose lawyers say he is ineligible to be executed because he is intellectually disabled.

Georgia death row inmate Warren Lee Hill was executed on Tuesday after the US Supreme Court rejected arguments that Mr. Hill had an intellectual disability that rendered his execution unconstitutional.

The high court declined to halt the state-authorized death by lethal injection in a pair of brief orders issued less than a half-hour before Hill’s scheduled 7 p.m. death sentence, which was carried out at the state prison in Jackson, Ga.

Hill was pronounced dead at 7:55 p.m.

Hill had survived three other execution dates when lower courts intervened on his behalf. But on Tuesday, his appeals ended with a two-sentence denial from the Supreme Court.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have granted the request to stay the execution.

In filings to the Supreme Court, Hill’s lawyer, Brian Kammer of the Georgia Resource Center, had accused the Georgia courts of participating in the “flagrant disregard” of US Supreme Court precedents that bar the execution of those with a mental disability.

After the Supreme Court refused to hear Hill’s case, Mr. Kammer directed his ire at the high court itself.

“Today, the Court has unconscionably allowed a grotesque miscarriage of justice to occur in Georgia,” Kammer said in a statement.

“Georgia has been allowed to execute an unquestionably intellectually disabled man ... in direct contravention of the Court’s clear precedent prohibiting such cruelty,” he said.

“The intellectual disability community, which has strongly supported Mr. Hill’s case for many years, joined his legal team in the belief that the Supreme Court would step in and prevent Georgia’s flagrant disregard of the Constitution on behalf of the rights of people with disabilities,” Kammer said. “Instead, tonight, Georgia will unconstitutionally execute Mr. Hill, a man with the emotional and cognitive ability of a young boy.”

Hill was sentenced to death after being convicted of the 1990 murder of his cellmate in a Georgia prison. Evidence at Hill’s trial showed that he attacked the inmate, Joseph Handspike, while he was sleeping. Hill struck him repeatedly in the head using a two-by-six-inch board with several nails protruding from one end.

At the time of the attack, Hill was serving a life sentence for the shooting death of his 18-year-old girlfriend. She was shot 11 times.

His appeals have largely focused on his intellectual disability and whether the Georgia courts have properly considered it as a factor exempting him from capital punishment.

The US Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that it is unconstitutional to execute an individual with a significant mental disability. But the court largely left it to the states to determine how best to draw that line.

Then, last term, the high court ruled 5 to 4 in a Florida case that states could not impose a bright-line cutoff tied to an IQ score of 70 to decide whose mental disability would qualify for an exemption from the death penalty and whose would not.

Instead, the Supreme Court called on states to embrace a more nuanced approach to the issue, including considering diagnostic practices used by mental health experts.

Hill’s lawyers said that Georgia’s requirement of proof of disability beyond a reasonable doubt made it virtually impossible to prove intellectual disability.

The lawyers said they were able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill’s IQ was approximately 70. But the lawyers conceded that they could only prove that Hill had adaptive skill deficits by the lower standard of preponderance of the evidence.

“That Mr. Hill is intellectually disabled is now the unanimous conclusion of all experts who have evaluated him, including the three state experts,” Kammer wrote in his petition to the Supreme Court.

“The evidence is by now abundantly and overwhelmingly clear that Mr. Hill is intellectually disabled,” he said.

“Only because Mr. Hill’s case happens to originate in Georgia does he still face imminent execution because Georgia is the only state in the nation to compel defendants to meet the heaviest burden of proof in American law – beyond a reasonable doubt – in order to invoke [the US Supreme Court’s] prohibition on the execution of the intellectually disabled,” Kammer wrote.

The issue in Hill’s petition was whether Georgia’s practice of requiring condemned prisoners to prove their mental disability beyond a reasonable doubt comports with Eighth Amendment protections upheld by the US Supreme Court.

Judges in Georgia have twice concluded that Hill’s intellectual disability was severe enough to exclude him from capital punishment. But in both cases, the courts reached that conclusion based on a preponderance of the evidence, not the significantly higher standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The question before the court was whether this higher burden of proof makes it so difficult for death row inmates to demonstrate the depth of their disability that it rises to the level of cruel and unusual punishment.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected a clemency request filed by Hill’s lawyers.

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, had called for a commutation of Hill’s sentence from death to life in prison without parole. Others urging a stay included The Arc and several other disability rights groups, the American Bar Association, the Georgia NAACP, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Council of Europe.

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