State News

February 19, 2013

Georgia execution halted at the last minute

JACKSON — The execution of a Georgia man who killed a fellow prisoner in 1990 was halted Tuesday at the last minute so courts could consider claims that he’s mentally disabled and other issues.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted its stay of execution as 52-year-old Warren Lee Hill was being prepared for lethal injection. In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the appeals court said further review is needed of recent affidavits by doctors who changed their minds about Hill’s mental capacity.

“In other words, all of the experts — both the State’s and the petitioner’s — now appear to be in agreement that Hill is in fact mentally retarded,” judges in the majority wrote in their order.

The state court of appeals also issued a stay to allow more time to consider a challenge related to the state’s lethal injection procedure.

Earlier in the day, the state parole board, the Supreme Court of Georgia and the U.S. Supreme Court had all declined to stop the execution.   

“We are greatly relieved that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed the execution of Warren Hill, a person with mental retardation. All the doctors who have examined Mr. Hill are unanimous in their diagnosis of mental retardation,” defense attorney Brian Kammer said in an email.

A spokeswoman for the state attorney general declined comment.

Hill was sentenced to die for the 1990 beating death of fellow inmate Joseph Handspike. Authorities say he used a board studded with nails to bludgeon Handspike while he slept and other prisoners pleaded with Hill to stop. At the time Hill was already serving a life sentence for murder in the 1986 slaying of his girlfriend, Myra Wright, who had been shot 11 times.

Hill has received support from various activists and from former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn.

“Georgia should not violate its own prohibition against executing individuals with serious diminished capacity,” President Carter said in a statement.

Hill was originally set to be executed in July, but the state delayed his execution when it changed its execution procedure from a three-drug combination to a one-drug method. The state Supreme Court then further delayed the execution after Hill’s lawyers filed a challenge saying corrections officials violated administrative procedure when they made the change. The state’s high court earlier this month denied that challenge, and Hill’s execution was reset for Tuesday.

Georgia’s supply of the single drug it uses to perform executions is scheduled to expire next month, and state officials haven’t said whether they’ve found a way to get more of the powerful sedative pentobarbital. Another inmate, Andrew Allen Cook, is set to be put to death Thursday, but no other executions are currently scheduled.

Hill’s lawyers argue that he is mentally disabled and therefore shouldn’t be executed. The state maintains that the defense failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill is mentally disabled.

Death penalty defendants in Georgia have to prove they are mentally disabled beyond a reasonable doubt to avoid execution, the strictest standard in the country. Hill’s lawyers have 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.

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.

Hill’s lawyers last week released new sworn statements from the three doctors who examined Hill in 2000 and testified before the court that he was not mentally disabled. The doctors wrote in their new statements that they were rushed in their evaluation at the time, they have acquired additional experience and that there have been scientific developments in the intervening 12 years. All three reviewed facts and documents in the case and wrote that they now believe that Hill is mentally disabled.

The state questioned the credibility of the doctors’ statements. These doctors met with Hill and reviewed extensive documentation in the case in 2000, but they haven’t seen him since and didn’t have significant new information in front of them during their recent review, the state argued. Therefore, it is not credible that they are able to refute the testimony they were so adamant about in 2000, the state argued.

The state has cited expert testimony and IQ tests that concluded Hill was not mentally disabled. Before trial, Hill’s family members described him as “the leader of the family” and “a father figure,” the state notes. He was not in special education classes and served in the Navy, where he received promotions, the state said.

The defense has referenced a state court judge’s assessment that Hill was mentally disabled and a test that showed his IQ to be about 70. The defense also cited expert testimony that it is not unusual for someone who is mildly mentally disabled to be able to function at a satisfactory level in an environment as structured as the military. With the new statements from the three doctors last week, all doctors who examined him now agree that Hill is mentally disabled, Hill’s defense argued.

———

Associated Press writer Christina Almeida Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this report.

 

1
Text Only
State News
  • One charged in death of Dalton woman, another sought

    A Dalton woman found dead in Calhoun earlier this month is believed to have died of a drug overdose after two Calhoun residents abandoned her in a car behind the VFW on East Line Street, Lt. Tony Pyle with the Calhoun Police Department said Wednesday afternoon.

    June 18, 2014

  • Guard shot at FedEx center to undergo 14th surgery

    A security guard critically wounded when a gunman went on a rampage at a FedEx facility is scheduled to undergo his 14th operation Tuesday.

    May 27, 2014

  • Arson ruled out as cause of chemical plant fire

    Police say investigators have been able to rule out arson or foul play as the cause of a massive fire at a chemical plant outside Atlanta that spewed black smoke and flames visible for miles.

    May 27, 2014

  • Teen tied to shopping cart drowns in lake

    Georgia Department of Natural Resources officials say a teen has died after being tied to a shopping cart and pushed into Lake Allatoona.

    May 25, 2014

  • Underground tattoo artists frustrate officials

    The work of tattoo artists whose living rooms double as body art studios might come cheap, but experts say the unsterile -- and illegal -- work environments could leave clients in pain long after the initial sting of the needle subsides.

    May 25, 2014

  • No runoff lets Republicans focus on Rep. Barrow

    While Georgia Republicans have to wait until July to settle runoff races for the U.S. Senate and three open House seats, one of the biggest GOP victories in the primary elections last week went to Augusta businessman Rick W. Allen.

    May 25, 2014

  • Audit probes juvenile justice turnover rate

    A state audit cites low pay, long hours and management concerns as reasons for a relatively high turnover rate at the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

    May 25, 2014

  • Atlanta schools ex-tech director to be sentenced

    After his relationship with the superintendent of Atlanta’s school system soured, a former technology director for the district set up a kickback scheme to pad his pockets before he left his job, according to court documents.

    May 24, 2014

  • Georgia veteran, 92, honored at surprise ceremony

    Family and friends surprised a 92-year-old World War II veteran from Georgia on Memorial Day by honoring him and presenting him with the World War II Victory Medal.

    May 24, 2014

  • Police: Massive chemical plant fire extinguished

    Authorities say a massive fire at a chemical plant outside Atlanta that spewed black smoke and flames visible for miles has been extinguished.

    May 24, 2014