Georgia Executes Warren Lee Hill, a Man with a 70 IQ

by | January 28, 2015 AT 2:20 PM

By Rhonda Cook

Warren Lee Hill, a man with an IQ of 70, was put to death Tuesday despite international protests that Georgia was executing a man with a child's intellect.

Hill went to the death chamber without a word and was pronounced dead by lethal injection at 7:55 p.m. at the prison 50 miles south of Atlanta. He watched the witnesses through the window in the witness chamber until he could no longer hold up his head.

About 20 people protested quietly outside the prison, and dozens of others gathered at places such as the state Capitol.

Hill's execution came amid a national and international campaign for clemency because of his intellectual disability. Voices from the Vatican to former President Jimmy Carter called for mercy. But the state Board of Pardons and Parole turned down his plea for clemency, and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court declined to stop the execution.

In Georgia, to prove that a death row inmate has an intellectual disability, the inmate's attorneys must show that he is disabled "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is the toughest standard of proof in the nation. Most states have a lesser standard: a finding of disability "by a preponderance of the evidence," meaning more likely than not.

That threshold had been the point of argument in Hill's trial and appeals to upper courts, and that is what will have to change to keep Georgia from finding itself in this position in some future case. A change is also not likely, some in the field believe.

"There has never been a political upside for anybody from any party to try to reform the death penalty in Georgia," said Chris Adams, the former head of the Georgia Capital Defender office. "Nobody has spent any political energy to make things work more justly in Georgia. I cannot imagine this is going to top their legislative agenda this year at the Capitol."

Death penalty opponents doubt the law will change without the courts ordering it.

It is ironic that Georgia finds itself in this position. In 1988, it led the nation in banning executions of the intellectually disabled. Passage of the law is widely attributed to the public outrage at the 1986 execution of Jerome Bowden, who, before going to the electric chair, had been found to have the mentality of a 12-year-old.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute the intellectually disabled. But the justices left it up to the states to figure out the standards for applying the ruling.

Hill's lawyers argued he had the mentality of an 11-year-old, though prosecutors brushed aside those arguments, noting he had graduated high school, served in the armed forces and held jobs.

In Hill's case, three experts testified in the 1991 trial that Hill was not disabled. But the three reversed themselves in sworn statements and interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They said their evaluations were rush-jobs and better scientific understandings make them believe Hill is mildly intellectually disabled.

Two judges had also found him to be disabled, but only by the lower standard of a preponderance of evidence.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, who is also chairman of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, said DAs are split over whether the standard should be changed.

He said Georgia law is specific in its definition of "mental retardation," a legal term frowned on by mental health professionals, and people who meet that definition are those the Supreme Court say cannot be put to death.

"The idea that, that (mental retardation) can't be proved or disproved beyond a reasonable doubt isn't true," Porter said.

And Georgia has some unique safeguards, such as allowing a jury to consider whether a person meets the mentally disabled criteria twice during a trail _ both in the trial phase and in the sentencing phase.

Hill was serving a life sentence for the 1986 fatal shooting of his girlfriend when he attacked a fellow inmate in 1990 with a nail-studded board. He was convicted and received the death penalty in that beating death.

Hill's attorneys shepherded the case through multiple appeals that earned three execution stays, each time hours before Hill was to die.

Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights and a law professor at Yale University, thinks a day will come when the Supreme Court reviews Georgia's law.

"Eventually the court will grant review and simply take it up. Is Georgia executing people or running the risk of executing intellectually disabled people with the 'beyond a reasonable doubt' (standard)? ... There's an outside chance the Georgia Legislature will do something," Bright said.

(c)2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution