Warren Lee Hill: the Execution of a Man with Intellectual Disability
When the State of Georgia executed Warren Hill on January 27, 2015, there was uncontroverted evidence of his intellectual disability, a status that should have prohibited his execution under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That the State of Georgia was nonetheless able to execute him was a direct consequence of the uniquely high burden Georgia capital defendants face to prove their ineligibility for the death penalty due to intellectual disability.
In the aftermath of the controversial 1986 execution of Jerome Bowden, a Black man with intellectual disability, the Georgia legislature passed a statute in 1988 exempting people with intellectual disability from the death penalty. Georgia was the first state in the country to prohibit the execution of those with intellectual disability. Yet the statute required proof of intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt – the highest burden of proof in our legal system. Georgia was and remains the only state to impose such a high burden of proof to establish ineligibility for execution based on intellectual disability.
Warren Hill was tried in 1991 for the murder of a fellow incarcerated person, Joseph Handspike, in Lee County Correctional Institute. At the time of the murder, Hill was serving a life sentence for the fatal shooting of his former girlfriend. His trial lawyers never raised the issue of intellectual disability, though evidence from his school records, teachers, and family members made clear that he had serious cognitive impairments dating back to his childhood.
In state habeas proceedings, the Georgia Resource Center raised the issue of Mr. Hill’s intellectual disability. Seven mental health experts testified at the evidentiary hearing: Mr. Hill’s four experts testified that he met the criteria for intellectual disability; the State’s three experts testified that he did not. The habeas court ruled in May 2002 that Mr. Hill had not proven his intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt as the law required. The court affirmed Mr. Hill’s death sentence.
Weeks later, in June 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the execution of people with intellectual disability was a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Armed with this new ruling, Mr. Hill requested reconsideration of the habeas court’s decision, challenging Georgia’s onerous burden of proof as unconstitutional. The habeas court agreed, holding that Georgia’s reasonable doubt standard violated the federal constitution and Atkins. The court found that Mr. Hill was intellectually disabled by a preponderance of the evidence and granted relief. On appeal, however, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed, holding that Atkins did not invalidate Georgia’s reasonable doubt standard. The Court reinstated Mr. Hill’s death sentence.
After unsuccessful federal habeas litigation, in 2013, Mr. Hill faced his first execution warrant, but was granted a stay of execution by the Georgia Supreme Court after challenging the state’s new lethal injection protocol as noncompliant with Georgia’s Administrative Procedures Act. The Georgia Supreme Court later held that the protocol complied with Georgia law, the state obtained a second warrant the very next day for Mr. Hill’s execution.
By that time, the three prosecution experts who had testified in state habeas proceedings that Mr. Hill did not meet the criteria for intellectual disability admitted they had been wrong: all three now agreed that Mr. Hill did meet the criteria and should, therefore, be exempt from the death penalty. In other words, every expert to evaluate Mr. Hill believed he was intellectually disabled. Based on this evidence, three hours prior to his scheduled execution on February 19, 2013, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted Mr. Hill a stay to allow further briefing on the issue. But the courts ultimately decided that this new evidence was too late. Mr. Hill’s intellectual disability claims were dismissed on procedural grounds. In a striking dissent, now-retired 11th Circuit Judge Rosemary Barkett stated, “the idea that courts are not permitted to acknowledge a mistake has been made which would bar an execution is quite incredible for a country that not only prides itself on having the quintessential system of justice but attempts to export it to the world as a model of fairness.”
The state did not immediately seek a third execution warrant. Instead, it waited for the passage of the lethal injection secrecy act—a law that classified the state’s source of execution drugs a state secret, disclosure of which was a criminal offense. The day after the bill was signed into law, Hill received his third warrant in the summer of 2014. The Georgia Resource Center challenged the secrecy statue and Mr. Hill won a stay of execution in the Fulton County Superior Court. The Georgia Supreme Court, however, later ruled the secrecy statute constitutional.
The State obtained a fourth warrant to move forward with Mr. Hill’s execution on January 16, 2015. The disability community, which had been instrumental in passing Georgia’s intellectual disability exemption decades before, rallied behind Mr. Hill and urged state leaders to halt his execution. Margaret Nygren, the executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, asked the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to spare Mr. Hill’s life. Several jurors from his trial, as well as members of the victim’s family, also opposed his execution. Other prominent leaders, like Laurel Bellows, president of the American Bar Association, and former President Jimmy Carter and Mrs. Rosalynn Carter, also pressed for clemency. Their efforts were unavailing. On the evening of January 27, 2015, Georgia executed Mr. Warren Lee Hill, despite overwhelming – and undisputed – evidence of his intellectual disability and widespread calls to spare his life.
For its outstanding advocacy on behalf of Warren Hill and others with intellectual disabilities, the Resource Center and former director Brian Kammer received the Arc of Georgia’s annual Diedre O’Brien Award in 2013, as well as the 2012 Indigent Defense Award from the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The outcry over Warren Hill’s execution, among other things, has led the Georgia legislature in recent years to consider changes to the legislative scheme, but has yet to lead to relevant changes. In the meantime, Georgia remains the only state in the country to demand the highest burden of proof for intellectual disability claims. In the statute’s entire 30-plus year history, no person convicted of malice murder has been able to prove a claim of intellectual disability to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.