The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously decided to stay the execution of Warren Lee Hill just two hours before he was to be put to death. But the court was not ruling on whether Hill should be executed because he is mentally retarded—the stay was based on the court’s decision to consider a recent change to Georgia’s lethal injection procedure from using a three-drug cocktail to using just one drug.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled a decade ago that the mentally retarded should not be executed in the U.S. because their mental state “places them at special risk of wrongful execution,” but Georgia is the only state in the union that requires defendants to prove their mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt.
Georgia just decided a week ago to change its lethal injection procedure from three drugs to one drug, following the example of states like Texas, the nation’s leader in putting people to death.
Hill was to be put to death for the killing of Joseph Handspike, another inmate in the prison where Hill was serving a life sentence for the 1986 killing of his girlfriend.
Warren Lee Hill’s case attracted an outpouring of support and outrage, from the New York Times editorial page to former President Jimmy Carter.
In a unanimous decision, the Georgia Supreme Court said it would consider an appeal filed by Hill’s lawyers over the change in the procedure and why the public was never given a chance to discuss it. But the matter of whether Hill still will have to meet Georgia’s stringent requirement to prove mental retardation was not decided on by the court.
Even the family of the victim do not wish to see Hill executed and has submitted an affidavit supporting commuting Hill’s death sentence to life without the possibility of parole, citing his mental retardation. President Carter and Rosalyn Carter have called for a commutation of Hill’s death sentence to life without parole, as have numerous mental health and disability groups. Several jurors who sat on Hill’s original jury have stated under oath that they believe that life without parole is the appropriate sentence. It was not offered to them as an option at trial in 1991. Earlier this week, the nation of France, a United Nations official, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called for a stay of execution for Mr. Hill.
Vigils on behalf of Hill were scheduled in towns across Georgia, including one that was to take place at the State Capitol building in Atlanta at 6:30 pm. But the Supreme Court put a stop to it all with the stay.