Warren Hill, a convicted murderer with an IQ of about 70, had already taken sedatives to get him ready for his lethal injection on Tuesday night when both a federal and a state appeals court granted him a stay. At that point in time, Hill only had 30 minutes to live. Now, it's unclear what happens next, but given that Hill was supposed to die tonight but remains alive, it's probably safe to say he'll be thanking some lawyers. And Jimmy Carter.
The whole situation is a little bit confusing if you haven't been following Hill's story. It's even more confusing if you're not up-to-date on the national conversation around the death penalty and mentally challenged prisoners. Some media outlets struggled to keep up with the fast-moving, last-minute court decisions. Basically, Hill was scheduled to be put to death at 7 p.m. By the time the deciding court ruling started rolled in, he'd taken a dose of Ativan to sedate him for the lethal injection. Earlier that day, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Georgia Supreme Court had denied Hill a stay of execution, as did the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Hill faces the death penalty for the 1990 killing of Joseph Handspike with a nail studded board while he slept. Hill was serving a life sentence for killing his girlfriend. She was shot 11 times.
Hill sounds like a real criminal — nobody's doubting that — but a 1988 Georgia law prohibits use of the death penalty on mentally disabled prisoners. A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling backed up that legislation by declaring it unconstitutional to execute the mentally disabled. Three doctors examined Hill in 2000 and deemed him fit for execution, that is, not mentally disabled, but they walked back on that decision last year, saying that their initial decision was rushed and medical advances over the past 12 years have given them a clearer picture of Hill's condition. "Medical experts who have examined Hill have confirmed he is mentally retarded," Laurel Bellows, president of American Bar Association, said in a statement to the parole board on Tuesday. "The three state doctors who testified in 2000 at Mr. Hill's evidentiary hearing have now revised their diagnoses and agree with six other doctors that Mr. Hill is mentally retarded." Even former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the European Union rose to the 53-year-old prisoner's defense.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals listened to the pleas for mercy — really, they were just pleas for obeying the law — and halted the execution at the very last minute so that the judge's could further examine the evidence that Hill is indeed disabled. A state appeallate court also issued a stay, though their reasoning pointed towards a lack of clarity in Georgia's lethal injection protocol. Now comes the hard part, though, when the federal and state appeals courts must face off against the U.S. and George Supreme Courts not just over whether Hill should really be spared but also over who really gets to decide the definition of "mentally disabled." It will also stir up the even fiercer debate about how and why we use the death penalty, a topic most recently batted around the international press when Troy Davis, an allegedly innocent black man, was put to death in the same prison where Hill awaits his fate.
A small crowd of protestors has been gathered outside the prison in Jackson, Georgia for the past few days. Regardless of what the judges decide in terms of his execution, Hill will be in the state's correctional system if not that very prison for the rest of his life. While the nuances of death penalty exceptions have been a challenge for America's legal system to figure out, few people disagree that criminals should go to jail.