Cover Story: Warren Hill and the future of Georgia’s death penalty

The longtime death-row inmate has staved off execution for nearly three decades despite the state’s stubborn wish to see him die

Nearly one year ago, Warren Hill ate what he thought would be his last meal. He made no special requests. Georgia Department of Corrections officials fed him a standard serving of macaroni, baked beans, stir-fried vegetables, corn bread, and iced tea.

Thirty minutes before his scheduled death by lethal injection, a pair of high state courts granted him two stays of execution. That decision kicked off a bizarre, unpredictable year for the 53-year-old. Along the way, Georgia’s death penalty once again was dragged into the international spotlight, highlighting the system’s flaws and state lawmakers’ stubborn dedication to keeping its rules intact. Earlier this week, the state restarted the process that will decide his fate.

Hill’s long and winding legal saga dates back almost three decades. In 1986, he was first found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his 18-year-old girlfriend Myra Wright. Four years later, he was found guilty of bludgeoning fellow inmate Joseph Handspike, who at the time was asleep, with a nail-studded two-by-six board. The second offense landed him on death row.

During the latter trial’s sentencing, four state experts testified that Hill’s IQ deemed him intellectually disabled. Three disagreed. The death-row inmate has an IQ of 70 — 70 or below is widely accepted as the standard for determining intellectual disability throughout the nation. In a state where “mental retardation” claims must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, Hill failed to meet those requirements. The death-row inmate continued his long wait inside the Jackson prison.

In July 2012, state officials initially denied him clemency on his first scheduled killing. But a high state court spared his life with less than two hours to go amid widespread global uproar concerning his mental status. The state rescheduled his execution for seven months later. Minutes before his second trip to the death chamber, Hill received two more stays when state mental-health experts, who originally dismissed his mental disability, voluntarily changed their minds and sided with Hill’s claims of intellectual disability.

The inmate’s lawyers exhausted nearly all legal options in the months leading up to yet another execution date in July 2013. After a last-minute challenge over Georgia’s new lethal injection secrecy law, a Fulton County judge issued an indefinite stay of execution. Hill’s lawyers raised concerns about the constitutionality of the measure, which state lawmakers passed to keep drug suppliers’ identities confidential. They argued that the disconcerting lack of information could cause “irreparable harm” to inmates subjected to such drugs that could be mixed by unreliable compounding pharmacies.

That argument won Hill a reprieve that’s lasted longer than most people expected.

Despite state Attorney General Sam Olens’ initial rush to appeal the ruling, Georgia Supreme Court justices have tapped the brakes on the case. Oral arguments started this week and judges are expected to make a decisive ruling this spring.

The coast is hardly clear for the aging death-row prisoner. Hill’s attorney Brian Kammer, executive director of the Georgia Resource Center since 1996, says that the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled against the legal nonprofit’s clients the last eight times it won lower court appeals. Although Hill has already received several stays for various reasons, the odds might be against him given the judicial body’s track record. Despite the fact that state experts from his case unanimously agree about Hill’s mental capacity, his burden of proof won’t get any easier at the state level.

The U.S. Supreme Court passed on Hill’s appeal, instead choosing to hear Hall v. Florida, a similar case that legal observers think might help “mentally retarded” prisoners’ cases and related death penalty statutes across the nation. The decision could help Hill to avoid a state-imposed death. Or it could expedite his execution. Until then, it’s a waiting game. And one that shows just how broken Georgia’s death penalty system is.