State News

May 23, 2013

Lawyers for death row inmate ask SCOTUS to step in

ATLANTA — Lawyers for a Georgia death row inmate asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday to prevent the execution of their client, who they say is mentally disabled.

Lawyers for Warren Hill have long argued that Hill is mentally disabled and therefore should not be put to death because the execution of mentally disabled offenders is prohibited by state law and a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision. But the state has consistently argued that Hill’s lawyers have failed to prove he is mentally disabled.

Hill was sentenced to die for the 1990 beating death of fellow inmate Joseph Handspike. Hill bludgeoned Handspike with a nail-studded board while his victim slept, authorities said. At the time, Hill was already serving a life sentence for the 1986 slaying of his girlfriend, Myra Wright, who was shot 11 times.

Three state experts who testified in 2000 that Hill was not mentally disabled wrote sworn statements in February saying they were rushed in their evaluation at the time, that they now have more experience and that there have been scientific developments since then. All three reviewed facts and documents in the case and write that they now believe Hill is mentally disabled.

“Without this Court’s intervention, the State of Georgia will execute a man who has now been found to be mentally retarded by every single mental health expert to have examined him, in violation of this Court’s holding ... that the Eighth Amendment categorically bars the execution of those suffering mental retardation,” Hill’s lawyer wrote in their filing with the Supreme Court.

The office of Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens declined to comment on the new filing.

Georgia has the strictest-in-the-nation standard for death-row inmates seeking to avoid execution, requiring them to prove their mental disability beyond a reasonable doubt. The state has said repeatedly that Hill’s lawyers have failed to meet that standard and has dismissed the doctors’ new testimony, saying it isn’t credible.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals in February temporarily halted Hill’s execution to consider his case based on the new expert statements. The panel ruled in a 2-1 decision last month that Hill is procedurally barred from having a new hearing.

That cleared the way for a new execution date to be set, but no new date has been set. The state’s supply of the execution drug pentobarbital expired in March, and it wasn’t immediately clear whether the state has been able to obtain more. The drug has become increasingly difficult for states to get since the manufacturer has said it doesn’t want the drug used in executions.

Hill’s lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to review the case.

“Given the weight of the evidence in this case — so overwhelmingly in favor of a finding of mental retardation that there is no longer any contrary expert opinion — the execution of Mr. Hill is unquestionably prohibited by the constitution of the United States and the principles of justice upon which the Eighth Amendment is based,” his lawyers write in their request. “This Court must act and provide Mr. Hill a forum in which to establish his mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt.”


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