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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Georgia Parole Board denies clemency to inmate found mentally disabled

Georgia Execution Chamber
A death-row inmate denied clemency Monday is asking the nation's highest court to stop his execution on grounds he is mentally disabled.

Warren Lee Hill is scheduled to be put to death Wednesday by lethal injection for beating fellow prison inmate Joseph Handspike to death with a nail-studded board. At the time, Hill was serving a life sentence for killing his 18-year-old girlfriend.

Hill's lawyer, Brian Kammer, said he was "horrified and outraged" by the parole board's decision to deny clemency, noting that a state judge previously found Hill to be mentally disabled.

Lawyers for Hill are now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the xecution. The high court declined in June to hear Hill's latest appeal, but his lawyers asked the court to reconsider. Hill is asking the court to postpone the execution until it rules on that request.

The case is "close to becoming a miscarriage of justice," Hill's motion said.

If that fails, Hill will file new appeals in the state and federal courts, said Kammer.

Hill's problem is that the judge found him mentally disabled by a preponderance of the evidence — or more likely than not. Georgia's law, the only one of its kind and the strictest in the nation, requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

"The Board is making the same mistake it made in denying clemency for another mentally retarded inmate, Jerome Bowden, in 1986," Kammer said. "This shameful decision violates Georgia's and our nation's moral values and renders meaningless state and federal constitutional protections against wrongful execution of persons with mental retardation."

In a statement last week, the state Attorney General's Office said Hill had failed to prove he was mentally disabled.

In response to the public backlash to the execution of Bowden, who had an IQ of about 65, Georgia became the first state in the country to ban the execution of the mentally disabled. But the 1988 state law also requires capital defendants to prove their disability by clearing the stringent legal threshold.

Hill's case attracted pleas for mercy from former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn as well as state and national groups for the developmentally disabled.

Rita Young, director of public policy for All About Developmental Disabilities in Decatur, said her group believes Hill should be allowed to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. "We are shocked and deeply disappointed in the board's decision to execute a man with an intellectual disability," she said.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 16, 2012


Clemency denied for Georgia death row inmate Hill

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has voted to deny clemency to death row inmate Warren Lee Hill, who is facing execution Wednesday.

The board announced its decision Monday after hearing arguments in the case Friday. Hill was convicted in 1991 and sentenced to death for killing a fellow inmate while serving a life sentence for the slaying of his girlfriend.

His lawyer Brian Kammer has argued that Hill is mentally disabled and therefore shouldn't be executed. Kammer said he's "horrified and outraged" by the board's decision.

"This shameful decision violates Georgia's and our nation's moral values and renders meaningless state and federal constitutional protections against wrongful execution of persons with mental retardation," he said.

Kammer had asked the board to commute Hill's sentence to life in prison without parole or to grant him a 90-day stay of execution to give the U.S. Supreme Court time to consider the case. A petition to have Hill's case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court was denied last month, but Kammer has filed a new request with the high court.

Hill and Joseph Handspike were both serving sentences for murder at the Lee Correctional Institution in 1990 when Hill beat Handspike to death. Hill was serving a life sentence at the time for the 1986 slaying of his 18-year-old girlfriend, who was shot 11 times.

Hill's defense says he is mentally disabled and therefore shouldn't be executed because state and federal law prohibit states from executing people who are mentally disabled. The state has said the defense has failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill is mentally disabled.

Georgia's standard of requiring death row inmates to prove mental disability beyond a reasonable doubt is the toughest in the country. Most states that impose the death penalty have a lower threshold for defendants to prove they are mentally disabled, while some states don't set standards at all.

Kammer has said the high standard for proving mental disability is problematic because psychiatric diagnoses are subject to a degree of uncertainty that is virtually impossible to overcome. But Georgia's strict standard has repeatedly been upheld by state and federal courts.

Source: Associated Press, July 16, 2012

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