Doctors Change Story: Warren Lee Hill and Disability on Death Row

Doctors Change Story: Warren Lee Hill and Disability on Death Row


Warren Lee Hill Jr., an intellectually disabled Georgia death row inmate, could be executed Tuesday, absent Supreme Court intervention. Many fear that his execution would be a miscarriage of justice, as doctors who assessed him more than 10 years ago changed their stories.

Dr. Donald Harris, Dr. Thomas Sachy and Dr. James Gary Carter are now in agreement with the other doctors who said that Hill has mild mental retardation.

As a result, Hill’s attorney, Brian Kammer filed a new clemency reconsideration application with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. He wants the board to reconsider granting a 90-day stay of execution and commuting Hill’s sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

The doctors’ changed assessments add another layer to the case of a man whose IQ of 70 could inform his murder of his girlfriend and of a prison inmate. His intellectual disability caused many to advocate for him.

Former president Jimmy Carter, the New York Times staff, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and members of the intellectual disability community oppose his execution.

Even those most intimately affected, the murdered inmate’s family, do not want Hill to be lethally injected. The family “feels strongly that persons with any kind of significant mental disabilities should not be put to death,” according to a statement.

In a court document, Dr. Sachy admitted that he erred and that the assessment of Hill was speedily done.

“The whole process, including my evaluation of Mr. Hill, was rushed due to this compressed timetable…. I told counsel I felt that my previous conclusions about Mr. Hill’s mental health status were unreliable because of my lack of experience at the time, and I wanted to revisit the case.”

Supporters of Hill recognize that crime, cognition, and capital punishment are complex. Then there’s a recurring question of what he truly knows. Is Hill “retarded enough” to be spared or of seeming average intelligence and seeking a pardon? A doctor said that because mild intellectual disability can create the appearance of normalcy, it can be difficult for some to believe that one is truly disabled.

“It is precisely because significant deficits in cognition, judgment and impulse control can be masked by superficial functionality in cases of mild mental retardation that such persons may sometimes not be identified in court proceedings as being intellectually disabled. I believe this has happened in Mr. Hill’s case,” Dr. Harris said.

This parallels what Kammer told Politic365 last July when the state changed its legal injection protocol and delayed Hill’s execution.

Kammer stated that people who are not intellectually disabled often take for granted their ability to “roll with” life’s challenges without having as difficult a time as intellectually disabled people. It is a distinction that the attorney said can become “catastrophic.”

That catastrophe could translate to a lack of protection for people with cognitive challenges.

“People with intellectual disability deserve to live as full citizens of this country and state, protected by laws designed to recognize our diversity and uphold our basic rights, despite our differences,” Eric Jacobson, Executive Director of Georgia’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, wrote for the Huffington Post.

For others, these points are particularly timely. Attorney Lee Kovarsky represented Marvin Wilson, a Texas inmate who was executed last year despite his IQ of 61. “We are gravely disappointed and profoundly saddened that the United States Supreme Court has refused to intervene,” Kovarsky said.

Time ticks for Hill, whose counsel currently has a motion for a stay of execution and a petition of certiorari pending with the U.S. Supreme Court.