The first US state to pass a law prohibiting the execution of mentally disabled death row inmates is revisiting a requirement for defendants to prove the disability beyond a reasonable doubt — the strictest burden of proof in the nation.
A Georgia House of Representatives committee is holding an out-of-session meeting Thursday to seek input from the public. Other states that impose the death penalty have a lower threshold for proving mental disability, and some do not set standards at all.
Just because lawmakers are holding a meeting does not mean changes to the law will be proposed, and the review absolutely is not a first step toward abolishing Georgia’s death penalty, said Georgia Representative Rich Golick, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.
Georgia’s law is the strictest in the US, even though the state was also the first, in 1988, to pass a law prohibiting the execution of mentally disabled death row inmates. The US Supreme Court followed suit in 2002, ruling that the execution of mentally disabled offenders is unconstitutional.
The Georgia law’s toughest-in-the-nation status compels lawmakers to review it, Golick said.
“When you’re an outlier, you really ought not to stick your head in the sand,” he said. “You need to go ahead and take a good, hard look at what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, weigh the pros and cons of a change and act accordingly or not.”
Thursday’s meeting comes against the backdrop of the case of Warren Lee Hill, who was sentenced to die for the 1990 beating death of fellow inmate Joseph Handspike, who was bludgeoned with a nail-studded board as he slept. At the time, Hill was already serving a life sentence for the 1986 slaying of his girlfriend, Myra Wright, who was shot 11 times.
Hill’s lawyers have long maintained he is mentally disabled and therefore should not be executed. The state has consistently argued that his lawyers have failed to prove his mental disability beyond a reasonable doubt.
Hill has come within hours of execution on several occasions, most recently in July. Each time, a court has stepped in at the last minute and granted a delay based on challenges raised by his lawyers. Only one of those challenges was related to his mental abilities, and it was later dismissed.
A coalition of groups that advocate for people with developmental disabilities pushed for the upcoming legislative committee meeting and has been working to get Georgia’s standard of proof changed to a preponderance of the evidence rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Hill’s case has drawn national attention and has shone a spotlight on Georgia’s tough standard, they say.
A state court judge concluded that Hill was probably mentally disabled. In any other state, that would have spared him the death penalty, said his lawyer, Brian Kammer.
Additionally, three state experts who testified in 2000 that Hill was not mentally disabled submitted sworn statements in February saying they had been rushed in their evaluation at the time. After further review and based on scientific developments since then, they now believe Hill is mentally disabled, they said.
The state has dismissed the doctors’ new testimony, saying it is not credible.
Hill has a challenge on different grounds pending before the Georgia Supreme Court. However, he has exhausted his challenges on the mental disability issue, Kammer said.
Even if changes are made to Georgia’s law, they will likely not be retroactive and would not apply to Hill, Keeley said.