Warren Hill, who came within an hour of being executed by the state of Georgia in February, has filed a habeas petition at the US Supreme Court. It was the Supreme Court that banned execution of those with “mental retardation” in 2002, although it was left to the states to decide how to determine a defendant’s intellectual disability.
As you may recall from previous posts, Warren Hill was found to be “mentally retarded” by a “preponderance of the evidence” by a Georgia state judge. This finding would have exempted him from execution in other states. But Georgia, and only Georgia, requires proof of “mental retardation” to be “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Earlier this year, the three mental health experts who had originally testified for the state – thereby creating “reasonable doubt” about Hill’s “mental retardation” claim – took a second, deeper look, and they now agree that Hill is in fact disabled to the extent that it would be unconstitutional to execute him. So now that all 7 experts who have examined him are of the unanimous opinion that Hill is “mentally retarded,” his lawyers have gone back to court to establish that the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold has been reached.
Because of this new evidence, Hill’s execution was stayed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. But then, a panel of that court decided (2-1, with a strong dissent) that Hill was “procedurally barred” from actually having his claim heard. This ruling illustrates perfectly the danger of laws, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in the 1990s, designed to limit appeals.
A claim based on new information with obvious relevance – that addresses a serious constitutional question and has the potential to result in a grave injustice – gets dismissed without a hearing. As Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote in her dissent [starting on p. 39] from this ruling:
“If the Supreme Court means that the mentally retarded cannot be constitutionally executed, and Hill has now shown beyond any reasonable doubt that he is mentally retarded, a congressional act cannot be applied to trump Hill’s constitutional right not to be executed.”
Hill’s petition to the US Supreme Court is meant to get an affirmation of this fact – that Congressional laws cannot supersede Supreme Court decisions, and that Georgia cannot be allowed to carry out an unconstitutional execution.