A secrecy deeper than a grave

Monday morning the only Georgia government officials with the power save Warren Lee Hill’s life met to consider whether to intervene.

I’m not going to debate whether the government was right to execute Hill. If you believe in the death penalty, his record was damning. In 1986, Hill killed his girlfriend by shooting her 11 times. He was sentenced to life. A few years later, he bludgeoned a fellow prisoner to death with a nail-studded board. If you don’t believe in the death penalty, then the details don’t mean much.

The complicating factor is that Hill had an IQ of 70 and may have been unable to comprehend what was going on. He has the mind of a young boy – a fact that would have spared his life just about anyplace else.

By Monday, Hill’s lawyers had exhausted their practical legal avenues. Enter the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, our final arbiter of justice. Under the Georgia constitution, no other government agency has the power to commute a death sentence.

To be honest, Hill’s chances weren’t so good. The board already had heard and rejected his appeal in 2012. We don’t know why its members voted against Hill. In fact, no one but the board members knows where Hill’s case fell short. The board never discusses why it does what it does. Its members assert their work is the holiest of holy state secrets. This is true even when they exercise the most formidable power a state can have over its citizens – the power to kill them.

Board members tend to vote in isolation and in secrecy, according to stories written last year by Alan Judd, one of our best investigative reporters. The five members rarely, if ever, deliberate as a body. They keep no public record of their votes. And they give us no explanation of their decisions.

Why the secrecy? The board won’t say. They refused to explain their occult practices to Judd and directed senior staff members not to comment.

Here’s the problem. You and I pay them base salaries of $135,000 a year to make these decisions on our behalf. Don’t we need to know what we are getting for our money? If you were the mother, brother or sister, or someone put to death, someone with a documented mental disability, wouldn’t you want to know? Don’t you deserve to know? For all we know, they are deciding to kill people by tossing a coin.

The board is notorious for sharing nothing. For example, Judd determined that its members were restoring gun rights to felons and pardoning sex offenders and other violent criminals without deigning to inform local prosecutors, victims or police. After Judd’s reports, the newly enlightened board resolved to allow these folks a chance to at least weigh in before its members go off to decide in secrecy.

Even with their immense power and tidy salaries, the board is accountable to no one. The governor appoints members to seven-year terms – longer than presidents, U.S. senators and just about anyone else.

If they are deciding their cases by coin toss, neither you, I or even the governor can do a damned thing about it.

And even though the board should, at least in theory, represent all Georgians, it is freighted with people who seem unlikely to ever embrace the argument that Georgia may be wrong to kill a man as intellectually deficient as Hill. All five are Republican appointees, and come with establishment government credentials. Terry Barnard, the chairman, and James Mills, the vice chairman, are former state legislators. James Donald and Albert Murray ran criminal-justice agencies in the administration of former Gov. Sonny Perdue. The fifth member, Braxton Cotton, worked in law enforcement and state government.

To add to the integrity of your deliberations, wouldn’t you balance the mix with, say, someone with a background as a public defender?

Only one former board member was willing to criticize the board for Judd’s story, but only on the condition that the newspaper protect his or her name. “There needs to be scrutiny,” the former board member told Judd. “There needs to be an opportunity to see if the information they’re relying on is accurate. What is the rationale for not releasing that information?”

The board apparently bases its secrecy on a state law passed during World War II. It came on the heels of a pardons-for-cash scandal involving two governors. The 72-year-old law says it’s a misdemeanor for the board to share documents and statements because they are “confidential state secrets.”

This narrow and antediluvian interpretation of the law – which includes contradictory passages that could be seen as demands for more openness – has solidified into an impenetrable cone of silence. This is unique among state agencies.

All hearings are closed to the public. In Hill’s case, the board issued the usual press release announcing it will close the meeting to the public and the press — except for a photo opp at the start.

Hollie Manheimer, the executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, is astounded that the board is allowed to operate with so little transparency. “While there occasionally may be a legitimate reason for shielding limited information from the public, it is hard to believe that a state board with such a critical mission is so insulated from public oversight,” she told Judd. “The public is keenly interested in the criminal justice system. … With so little access to information about this state board, the public is unable even to evaluate if it is functioning properly.”

Tuesday, the board issued a press release saying its members had carefully considered Hill’s case.

I guess we’ll have to take them at their word. Here’s the full text of the substance of their ruling for your review: “The Board has denied the request to reconsider its decision of July 16, 2012.”

By 7:55 that evening, an injection of a lethal drug cocktail had killed Hill, silencing his child’s mind.

For all we know, he was lost to an unfortunate toss of a coin.