Georgia Came Within 30 Minutes of Executing a Mentally Disabled Inmate Last Night

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Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Feb. 20 2013 12:49 PM

Georgia Came Within 30 Minutes of Executing a Mentally Disabled Inmate Last Night

Police officers guard the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court
Police officers guard the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Warren Lee Hill, a mentally disabled Georgia death-row inmate, was less than a half hour away from death on Tuesday night when two courts issued temporary stays of execution.

According to some reports, Hill had already taken a sedative to prepare for the execution when the stay was granted. Hill was sentenced to death in 1991 for the murder of a fellow inmate, while serving a life sentence for murder.

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Hill, who has an IQ of 70, has become emblematic of the reality of Georgia's unusually strict standard of proof for mental disabilities in capital punishment cases. While the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia Supreme Court decision took the death sentence off the table for the "mentally retarded," states get to determine their own definition of the term. In Georgia, as the Guardian explains, that means "beyond a reasonable doubt," and it's the strictest standard in the country. So despite the opinions of nine medical experts finding Hill to be "mildly mentally retarded," his execution very nearly happened last night. The last-minute interventions by the court will keep Hill in a temporary limbo while courts take a look at the two separate reasons behind the stays of execution.

Earlier the U.S. Supreme Court had denied Hill a stay of execution (though it's unclear why), as had the Georgia Supreme Court and the state pardons board. The two granted stays came from a federal and a state court: the 11th circuit Court of Appeals and the Georgia state court of appeals. The latter stay was granted so the courts could consider Georgia's new protocols for lethal injection. The 11th circuit stay, however, addressed Hill's mental capacity. As the full order (via Mother Jones) explains, the three state psychiatric experts who originally testified that Hill was competent have reversed their opinions: (italics theirs; bolded text ours)

"In the state court proceedings in 2000, Hill presented four experts who testified that Hill was mentally retarded, and the State presented three experts ... who testified that Hill was not. In the face of the whole record, the state courts concluded at the time that Hill was mentally retarded by a preponderance of the evidence, but that Hill had failed to demonstrate that he was mentally retarded beyond a reasonable doubt as required by [state law]. In his current application, however, Hill has filed affidavits from all three of the State's experts ... each of whom has revised his opinion and now testifies that Hill meets the criteria for mental retardation."

The 11th circuit stay will delay Hill's execution for at least 30 days. While the state now has no experts on record of the opinion that Hill is competent enough to be put to death, it's unclear whether the new affidavits from the experts who have changed their minds will be enough for the courts to agree that Hill has met Georgia's standard.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.

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