Cover Story: Deadlocked

The sad absurdity of Georgia’s death penalty

On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments in the case that has effectively brought the state’s death penalty to a halt.

In July, state corrections officials turned off the lights of the death chamber at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Ga., roughly 60 miles southeast of Atlanta. Eighty-nine men and one woman there await execution. The freeze wasn’t because of faulty equipment or a change of heart by Georgia politicians to bring an end to centuries of executions. It was because the state, in its urgency to keep the death penalty a-hummin’, got sloppy trying to kill Warren Lee Hill, who was found guilty in 1991 for his second murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Last summer, Hill’s lawyers called out state officials for trying to keep secret basic information about the execution process, such as the origin of the drugs that would be used to kill their client. Hill thought he had a right to question the process. But legal debate remained over whether the inmate could challenge his execution because his attorneys and others considered him “mentally retarded” and therefore exempt from the death penalty. Since then, Hill’s case has been sitting in legal limbo.

Regardless of the case’s outcome, it won’t put an end to a form of “punishment” that’s supported by many politicians and some district attorneys across the state, Fulton County’s in particular. But the abrupt halting of the death penalty and the reasons behind it have shed light on its absurdity. Georgia’s mentally disabled inmates are subject to the nation’s highest burden of proof — and often lose that fight. Despite the fact that other states are imposing moratoriums on the death penalty, corrections officials here are tripping over themselves trying to locate the lethal cocktail used during executions.

To understand Georgia’s tenuous relationship with the executioner’s chamber, CL revisited the punishment’s history, the recent search for lethal injection drugs, the state’s unjust policies toward “mentally retarded” prisoners, and the importance of Hill’s case.