The state of Georgia has rescheduled the execution of a mentally handicapped inmate for February 19. Warren Lee Hill Jr. was scheduled for execution last summer; however, the Georgia Department of Corrections changed the lethal injection process and delayed his execution.
The same day that the lethal injection protocol was examined, a petition for considering Hill’s mental retardation, was denied, despite his IQ of 70.
Hill’s attorney, Brian Kammer, told Politic365 that he wants the courts, the department of corrections and the clemency board “to err on the side of humaneness and mercy” in cases similar to Hill’s.
Admittedly, Hill’s story is troubling. He was already imprisoned for a life sentence for the murder of his girlfriend when he was found guilty of killing a prison inmate and sentenced to death more than 20 years ago.
But, Hill also elucidates questions of ethics and crime. As public opinions demonstrate a divided America with regard to the death penalty, some might wonder what average Americans think about similar issues.
The Pew Research Center reported that public opinions on the death penalty haven’t changed much recently, but capital punishment is far less supported than it was in the mid 1990s. More than 60% of adults polled in 2011 favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. In the mid 1990s, that statistic was nearly 80%.
Pew’s findings highlight change. Of respondents who do not support the death penalty, 27% cited moral concerns. Another 27% expressed concerns about the justice system putting innocent people to death.
But, the intersection of cognition and crime could create gray areas that are difficult to assess. And what about the mental awareness to accompany one’s acts?
Kammer didn’t couch his concerns in pardoning Hill’s past actions or entitling his client to a scot-free existence. If Hill gets clemency, he will live the basic life of an incarcerated person.
“The system will house him and minimally care for him for the rest of his life if he receives clemency or a court vacates the death sentence.” Even so, rudimentary care seems out of reach to Hill, who Kammer shared is pessimistic about his chances.
Hill’s case has been chronicled in the media and championed by human rights watchdogs. It called more attention to Georgia’s high standard of proof for proving mental retardation, the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Georgia is the only state in the United States employing the highest burden of proof for mental retardation.
“I think that it may be impossible to satisfy the reasonable doubt standard for any mental health diagnosis,” Kammer said. “It’s incompatible with the practice of clinical diagnosis, in which doctors make conclusions to ‘a reasonable degree of scientific certainty.’”
Constitutionality questions linger. The Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally handicapped people in 2002’s Atkins. v. Virginia.
In Atkins, the Supreme Court wrote, “Because of their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses …. [Mentally handicapped people] do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.”
The United States Supreme Court can prevent Hill’s execution. As for ethical concerns underlying the case, Kammer alluded to universality. “Executing someone like Mr. Hill is morally corrosive and cheapens all our lives.”