Opinion

The lessons of Georgia's unjust execution of a developmentally disabled murderer

Our justice system apparently cares more for the letter of the law than its spirit

Warren Lee Hill was a developmentally disabled black man in Georgia. He indisputably killed a fellow prisoner while serving a life sentence for indisputably killing his girlfriend.

Regardless of the law or the facts, in other words, regardless of "evolving standards of decency," regardless of a Supreme Court prohibition against the execution of the mentally disabled, regardless of the uniformity of medical opinion supporting his cause, Warren Hill never had a chance.

Warren Lee Hill (AP Photo/Georgia Dept. of Corrections, File)

It didn't matter that every doctor who evaluated him eventually agreed that Hill arguably met the standard for intellectual disability outlined by the United States Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia and Hall v. Florida. Those two heralded decisions, we now know, only cruelly pretend to prohibit states from killing mentally disabled killers. The three doctors who recanted in Hill's favor, who mulled it over, who belatedly saw his complete testing records and realized there had been a terrible mistake when they had waffled about the extent of his disability? Our nation's judges, one after another, state and federal, disregarded those doctors in the name of procedural purity.

Nor did it matter in Hill's case that there was compelling evidence that his trial lawyers, the lawyers who also handled his initial appeal, failed to conduct a competent investigation into his mental capacities when it would have mattered most. Why didn't the initial doctors who offered expert opinions have his complete school records? Because school custodians only copied the front side of papers in his record — and thus did not turn over to his lawyers the other sides of the records that had the scores that showed his intellectual limits. Why weren't other important leads followed? Because investigators said there wasn't enough time or money.

Hill's execution in Georgia on Tuesday tells us three important things. First, it tells us that the court's ministrations in Atkins and Hall are hollow. States are free to evade them by conjuring up standards like the one Georgia employed here. The second lesson is that even where there is strong evidence of disability, courts still embrace procedural hurdles that neuter the impact of that evidence. Finally, Hill's death reminds us that we must look beyond the court for whatever capital reform is to come. Even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the darling of the left, the patron saint of lost progressive causes, could not be moved to record a dissent from the denial of relief for Hill.

Alone in the nation, Georgia imposes a "reasonable doubt" standard in these capital cases — forcing the disabled to prove their disability by the highest possible standard of proof, a standard many doctors (and some judges) believe is scientifically impossible to meet. At the end of Hill's life, every doctor who mattered in this case was on the record saying that Hill was sufficiently disabled to be exempt from execution — but somehow there was still "reasonable doubt." How? The courts concluded that the doctors came too late to their conclusions — that it would have been improper under federal law to allow Hill's lawyers to make belated arguments reflecting new evidence.

Hill's death came on the same day that Texas moved closer to executing another mentally disabled man, a man with an IQ three points lower than Hill. And indeed, Robert Ladd, with an IQ of 67, was put to death Thursday in a state that has longed thumbed its nose at the Supreme Court and its Atkins precedent. In 2012, Texas executed Marvin Wilson, a grown man who sucked his thumb, could not button his shirt, and could not always tell left from right. The justices in our nation's capital did nothing to stop that execution then, and they didn't do anything to delay Ladd's death, either. Thou shalt not execute the mentally disabled, the court has declared twice since 2002, and then the justices have sat back and allowed states like Texas and Georgia to execute the mentally disabled.

Scores of men get executed every year in America, still, and many of those cases raise genuinely important issues of constitutional law and morality. But Warren Hill's case, and his death, is special. Georgia just executed a man who no independent doctor believed was competent to be executed, and it did so with the blessing of a court evidently content to countenance a broad exception to its own rule that executing those with diminished mental capacity is "cruel" under the Eight Amendment.

Warren Hill is dead. So is the promise of Atkins. So is the rationale of Hall. And so is the pretense that this is a court more concerned with embracing evolving standards of decency than with wallowing in sterile formalism that is the opposite of justice.

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