The US state of Georgia postpones a convict's execution due to drug changes. But doubts continue about his mental capacity and a US Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the death penalty for the mentally disabled.
Human rights organization Amnesty International has placed the case of Warren Lee Hill on its "Urgent Action" list, and the New York Times recently made him the subject of an editorial.
But so far, all attempts to stay the execution of the 52-year-old Hill have been in vain. Nearly all legal options have been tried; on July 16, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected his petition for clemency, and the US Supreme Court in Washington has refused to hear the case.
Now Hill's execution in a prison in Jackson, which was originally set for Wednesday July 18, has been postponed to July 23 because of new developments in the drug intended for execution. The Georgia Department of Corrections said it planned to use the single drug pentobarbital instead of the combination of three substances employed until now.
The fact that Hill committed the crime for which he was convicted is not in doubt. The African American was already serving a life sentence for the 1986 murder of his girlfriend when he was sentenced to death for killing a fellow inmate in 1990.
At the time, the jury was unable to choose a life sentence without parole, as this option was not created until later, according to the New York Times. The newspaper pointed out that several jurors would have preferred a life sentence as punishment, and even the victim's family has spoken out against the execution.
Mental capacity in doubt
Considerable doubts remain concerning the offender's intellectual capacities. While making his petition, Hill's lawyers argued that their client was mentally retarded and had an IQ of 70. An IQ of below 70 is considered mentally handicapped.
"Several family members have very movingly stated that they grew up with Mr. Hill, and that even then they noticed something wrong with him, that he had some type of disability," Hill's lawyer Brian Kammer told the radio station WABE 90.1 FM on Friday.
The US Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the mentally handicapped may not be executed, saying it went against the US Constitution and, as cruel and unusual punishment, was prohibited by law. However, it is left up to the individual states to decide their criteria for person to be ruled mentally handicapped.
Although Georgia was the first US state to ban the execution of the mentally disabled in 1988, at the same time it demanded that such a condition be unequivocally proven. "Predominant signs" of mental retardation in a defendant, accepted in other states, are not enough in Georgia.
Participation in daily life possible
"This is a terrible tragedy," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC, in an interview with DW. "Even the judge in Georgia, who ruled in Hill's case, has stated that [he] shows signs of mental retardation." This applies, for example, to people who have the intellectual development level of a 12-year-old. They are still able to participate in the daily life and, such as in Hill's case, serve in the army, or buy a car.
"This is not a case of complete mental incapacity, but a reduction of criminal responsibility," said Dieter, adding that these people are less able to clearly distinguish between good and evil.
Dieter thinks the death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst, those who commit their crimes in full awareness. There are often doubts in assessing a person's mental capacity, and scientific tests aren't 100 percent accurate, but Dieter thinks that cases like Hill's should be ruled in favor of the defendant - after all, for him it's a matter of life and death.
"What we are slowly realizing is some of the people who have committed the most horrific crimes in this country have mental problems: they are mentally retarded, or suffer from schizophrenia," said Dieter, though he stresses that these conditions are not excuses. He hopes that one day, a comprehensive reassessment of the entire range of mental health issues could be taken into account at the sentencing of offenders.
Kammer also defended Troy Davis, whose execution last year sparked protests
Kammer said he was "appalled and outraged" by the rejection of Hill's petition, calling it a "shameful decision that violates the moral values of Georgia and our nation." He said the court's decision would make the ban on executions of mentally retarded persons pointless.
According to Amnesty International and the Death Penalty Information Center, 23 people have been executed in the US this year. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, a total of 1,300 people have been executed in the United States, including 52 in Georgia.
There is still a slim hope that a further appeal for clemency by Hill's lawyers will be successful - raising the issue of the method of execution could lead to a postponement. Then, the issue of Hill's mental capacity could be reconsidered.
Author: Christina Bergmann, Washington DC / cmk
Editor: Rob Mudge