Warren Lee Hill granted stay of execution

Condemned killer Warren Lee Hill, whose mental retardation claims have attracted international attention, was spared execution Tuesday night with less than an hour to go before he was to be put to death.

Hill had already been given a sedative to prepare for his lethal injection, shortly after the state parole board declined to commute Hill’s capital sentence and after the Georgia Supreme Court rejected his final appeal.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court declined to issue a stay, which could be a sign that his chances are slim of avoiding another scheduled execution.

But then, the federal appeals court in Atlanta, by a 2-1 vote, halted Hill’s execution for at least 30 days.

“All of the experts — both the state’s and (Hill’s) — now appear to be in agreement that Hill is in fact mentally retarded,” Judges Rosemary Barkett and Stanley Marcus wrote in granting Hill a “conditional” stay of execution.

Judge Frank Hull dissented, saying there is a wealth of “reliable and unbiased evidence” in the voluminous case that shows Hill is not mentally retarded.

At about the same time the federal appeals court issued its stay, the Georgia Court of Appeals issued its own, saying it needed more time to consider a separate challenge to Georgia’s lethal-injection procedure.

“I’m relieved that someone took a serious look at Warren’s claims,” Hill’s attorney, Brian Kammer, said shortly after telling his client the news. Hill was somewhat unresponsive and sounded nervous, even when told his execution had been put on hold, Kammer said.

Hill was sentenced to death for killing Joseph Handspike, an inmate serving a life sentence in the same southwest Georgia prison where Hill was incarcerated. Hill bludgeoned Handspike to death with a nail-studded wooden board as Handspike lay in his bed.

At the time, Hill was already serving a life term for another gruesome murder. Hill killed his 18-year-old girlfriend, Myra Wright, by shooting her 11 times in 1986.

Hill’s scheduled execution, which would have taken place at the Georgia Diagnostic Prison in Jackson, prompted calls Tuesday by disability rights advocates for changes in the way Georgia determines whether an inmate meets the criteria for mental retardation. In 1988, Georgia became the first state to ban executions of the mentally retarded, and the U.S. Supreme Court declared the practice unconstitutional nationwide in 2002.

But Georgia is the only state in the nation to require capital defendants to prove their mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt — the most difficult burden of proof to clear.

“It’s time to take another look at the law,” Rita Young, director of public policy for All About Developmental Disabilities, said Tuesday at a rally outside the state Capitol.

She urged the Legislature to require capital inmates prove their mental retardation by a preponderance of the evidence — or more likely than not. This is the same requirement used by more than 20 other states with the death penalty.

Eric Jacobson, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, said Hill’s intellectual disabilities could be traced back to elementary school when teachers recognized his deficits.

“Nobody disputes anymore than Warren Hill has an intellectual disability,” Jacobson said.

But state experts called to testify in a 2000 hearing for Hill said they believed he was faking his mental disability. They noted Hill served in the Navy and was promoted to the rank of petty officer, and that relatives had said Hill often stepped into the role of head of the family.

The state court judge who oversaw that hearing also heard testimony from four defense experts who said they believed Hill was mentally retarded. This judge found that Hill proved he was mentally retarded, but only by a preponderance of the evidence, not by the strict standard required by Georgia law. Another judge made a similar ruling, which brought new attention to Hill’s case.

Early this month, Hill’s attorneys released affidavits from the three experts called upon by state attorneys during the 2000 hearing. The experts now say they believe they had been mistaken.

The doctors — two psychiatrists and a psychologist — described their evaluations of Hill more than a decade ago as rush jobs and said the scientific understanding of mental retardation has grown over the past 12 years, giving them better insights into evaluating a person such as Hill.

All three said they have taken another look at the case and believe Hill now meets the criteria for mental retardation.

Hill’s lawyer used this new information in last-ditch appeals filed in state court, saying it would be a miscarriage of justice to execute Hill with the new evidence. Kammer also asked the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to take another look at Hill’s request for clemency.

In court filings, Deputy Attorney General Beth Burton called the three former state experts disingenuous and said they had ignored IQ test results that showed Hill did not meet the criteria for mental retardation.

In 2000, each of the experts evaluated Hill and were firm in their conclusions, Burton wrote. “Their current affidavits, provided 13 years later without additional testing and little additional evidence, does not establish a miscarriage of justice.”

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta issued its stay in part because of the recent reversals of opinions by the state’s experts, Kammer said. “The 11th Circuit was correct to intervene in this case and prevent a mentally retarded man from being put to death tonight,” he said.

Staff writer Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.

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