ATLANTA—Convicted murderer Warren Lee Hill had a last-minute reprieve from death on Feb. 19. He was set to be executed at 7 p.m. and had exhausted his appeals. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles had denied clemency.
An appeals court granted him a 30-day reprieve only one hour before he was set to die.
“All of the experts—both the state’s and [Hill’s]—now appear to be in agreement that Hill is in fact mentally retarded,” federal appeals court judges Rosemary Barkett and Stanley Marcus wrote in granting Hill a stay of execution.
It is unconstitutional to execute people with serious developmental disabilities, according to the Supreme Court. Hill has an intelligence quotient of 70.
Although Georgia was the first state to forbid capital punishment for people with an intellectual disability in 1988, it now has the strictest standard of any state for proving such intellectual disability. The condition must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
When Hill was sentenced to death in 1991, experts said that he did not have an intellectual disability because he was able at times to hold a job and to support his family. In addition, he was promoted while serving in the Navy. Therefore, the Supreme Court ban on capital punishment for intellectually limited people did not apply to Hill.
“People with intellectual disabilities are able to have a role in our society in a way we used to not believe that they could do,” according to Eric Jacobsen, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD). He spoke at a press conference of disability advocates at the Georgia State Capitol on Feb. 19.
The doctors who evaluated Hill 20 years ago had a different idea about the capabilities of intellectually limited people. Now, with the right support, people who might have lived in an institution or remained hidden in their home take part in society in new ways, according to Jacobsen, adding that they should never be executed for crimes they are not able to fully understand. If that is done, “we have created an injustice among all people,” he said.
“We understand disability differently than we did 20 years ago,” he added.
Rita Young, director of public policy at All About Developmental Disabilities (AADD), wants legislators to change the Georgia law.
“We believe this issue is even broader than any one case. We want to see a change in the law. Georgia is the only state in the nation with such a strict standard,” Young said.
A statement from the GCDD proposes that the change would be simple: “The law would only take two small paragraphs to change our burden of proof and thus prohibit those with intellectual disabilities from being executed. The requested changes would allow for mental retardation to be established by the ‘preponderance of the evidence’ instead of the current standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt.’”
Hill was serving life in prison for murdering his girlfriend, Myra Wright, in 1985. In 1991, he was sentenced to death for murdering fellow Lee Correctional Institution inmate and convicted murderer Joseph Handspike.
According the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Handspike’s family issued a sworn statement calling for mercy for Hill.
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