Judge dismisses Warren Hill appeal - and prods Georgia Supreme Court to review death penalty case

Death row inmate whose case sparked debate over executing mentally disabled could be killed at any time


Georgia death row inmate Warren Hill has lost a court battle to be ruled “intellectually disabled” - and thus immune from execution - despite medical experts saying he is.

But Hill also gained an ally in the judge, Thomas Wilson of the Towaliga Judicial Circuit, whose Oct. 1 dismissal order included an unusual prodding for the Georgia Supreme Court to review the case.

Pointing to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Wilson expressed worry that Georgia law preventing the execution of people with intellectual disabilities is now unclear.

“The Court voices its concern as to whether there has been a change in the laws as they relate to the material issue involved in the case,” Wilson wrote. “There is no public outcry calling for change, but there exists the knowledge that this case involves the ultimate punishment and that the defendant is at the end of his legal avenues of appeal.”

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Hill’s case has drawn international media attention and criticism from such human rights organizations as Amnesty International.

There’s no doubt about Hill’s guilt: In 1986, he murdered his girlfriend, Myra Wright; then in 1990, while serving a life sentence, he murdered cellmate Joseph Handspike by beating him with a nail-studded board. A jury sentenced him to death in 1991.

The controversy is about Georgia’s legal definition of “intellectually disabled.” In the 2002 case Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court banned execution of intellectually disabled people as an unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment.” But it allowed individual states to decide how to measure intellectual disability.

Seven medical experts have diagnosed Hill as intellectually disabled, with an IQ around 70. Those experts include three former prosecution witnesses who have since changed their minds. In any other death penalty jurisdiction, Hill’s attorney Brian Kammer says, that would be good enough.

But Georgia law is unique in demanding that intellectually disability must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” and contains outdated, unscientific ideas about disabilities. Kammer and other Hill supporters say the standard is impossible to meet and amounts to pseudoscience.

Shoddy science worried the U.S. Supreme Court, too. Earlier this year, in Hall v. Florida, it stopped Florida from executing a convict whose IQ was measured as 1 point above the state’s threshold definition of intellectual disability. State definitions have to match science and common sense, and not impose artificially rigid requirements, the court said.

Based on the Hall decision, Hill filed a petition in August in Butts County Superior Court, seeking to have Georgia’s standard ruled unconstitutional and his death sentence tossed out.

Judge Wilson dismissed the request, saying the Hall ruling isn’t “sufficiently on point” for him to toss out existing laws. But he also strongly urged the state Supreme Court to accept Hill’s appeal and reconsider the law based on the Hall ruling. Hill’s case offers a chance for a “perfect and definitive decision in this area of the law,” Wilson wrote.

Such advocacy by a lower court judge is “very unusual,” Kammer tells CL. “I think he is signaling his strong concern that the Georgia Supreme Court should review this in light of Hall.”

The court is not required to accept the appeal - which Hill will file within 30 days - so it’s significant that “we’ve got the judge on our side saying they should take it up,” Kammer says.

It may be Hill’s last chance to avoid the death penalty. He also has an appeal pending at the U.S. Supreme Court challenging Georgia’s execution-drug secrecy law, but that would not affect his death sentence either way.

Meanwhile, Hill is not under any stay of execution. The state could issue a death warrant at any time.