JACKSON, Ga. — The Georgia Supreme Court stayed Monday’s scheduled execution of a man convicted of killing a fellow inmate, saying it would review a defense challenge based on the state’s
recent switch to a single-drug injection.
Warren Lee Hill Jr. had faced a
scheduled 7 p.m. execution at the state penitentiary in Jackson. The high court said Monday afternoon that it was unanimously staying the execution to consider Hill’s appeal.
The 52-year-old’s case had drawn national attention as it put a spotlight on Georgia’s toughest-in-the-nation requirement for death row inmates who seek to prove they are mentally disabled.
Hill’s lawyers have argued he is mentally disabled and should be spared execution because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing the mentally disabled is cruel and unusual and Georgia law prohibits it.
The high court on Monday denied Hill’s request that it reconsider a challenge on those grounds.
Hill was the first Georgia inmate scheduled to be executed since the state announced last week that it was changing from a three-drug cocktail to one lethal dose of the sedative pentobarbital.
At issue, the court said, was whether the switch is subject to the state’s Administrative Procedure Act, which requires public hearings before such a change is made. The court’s order did not specify how long its consideration of the issue would take.
Hill was convicted in the Aug. 17, 1990, beating death of Joseph Handspike while serving a life sentence for the shooting death of his 18-year-old girlfriend.
Hill was convicted in 1991 on charges of malice murder, felony murder and aggravated assault in Handspike’s death and the jury recommended the death sentence.
Georgia passed a law in 1988 prohibiting the execution of mentally disabled death row inmates, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the execution of mentally disabled offenders is unconstitutional. The state said the defense has failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill was mentally disabled.
Last Thursday, a state court judge found the evidence in the case indicates beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill has an intelligence quotient of 70. The judge also found that Hill meets the overall criteria for mental retardation by a preponderance of the evidence. But he refused to block Hill’s execution, saying a “preponderance of evidence” is not sufficient to prove mental disability under Georgia law. He found that Georgia’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is not unconstitutional.
The state Supreme Court declined Monday to appeal the state court ruling.
Kammer said he’s disappointed that the state high court rejected the appeal.
“But I plan to go to the U.S. Supreme Court with that to see what they have to say about it,” he said.
Georgia’s standard of requiring death row inmates to prove mental disability beyond a reasonable doubt is the toughest in the country. Most states that impose the death penalty have a lower threshold for defendants to prove they are mentally disabled, while some states don’t set standards at all.
Hill’s defense has said the high standard for proving mental disability is problematic because psychiatric diagnoses are subject to a degree of uncertainty that is virtually impossible to overcome. But Georgia’s strict standard has repeatedly been upheld by state and federal courts.