INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY: Georgia Inmate Appeals Intellectual Disability Claim to U.S. Supreme Court

On May 23, lawyers for Georgia death row inmate Warren Hill (pictured) petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent his execution, citing strong evidence that Hill has an intellectual disability. Three mental health experts who testified in 2000 that Hill did not have an intellectual disability have now changed their mind about the inmate’s mental health. According to the petition, “all seven mental health experts who have ever evaluated Hill, both the State’s and Hill’s, now unanimously agree that he is mentally retarded.” In Georgia, capital defendants are required to prove “mental retardation” beyond a reasonable doubt. It is the only state in the country that sets such a high burden of proof for such claims. Lawyers for Warren Hill claim that Hill’s execution will violate the Court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), which prohibits the execution of individuals with intellectual disabilities. In the petition to the Court, the lawyers urged, “Every court to which Mr. Hill has petitioned in an effort to present this new and compelling evidence has denied him an opportunity to prove the merits of his claim. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole has likewise refused to reopen proceedings in light of this evidence. This Court accordingly is Mr. Hill’s last and only hope to avoid an execution that is flat-out prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.”

INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY: Federal Appeals Court Says Evidence of Mental Retardation Is Too Late

On April 22, a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied Warren Hill’s appeal to halt his execution based on new evidence of his intellectual disability. The Court ruled that Hill’s claim of intellectual disability (mental retardation) was presented in an earlier petition and cannot be presented again, despite the new evidence. The judges also held that, even if Hill's claim is a new one, it only challenges his eligibility for the death penalty, not his underlying guilt, and is therefore improper in a second petition. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Rosemary Barkett said, “There is no question that Georgia will be executing a mentally retarded man because all seven mental health experts who have ever evaluated Hill, both the state’s and Hill’s, now unanimously agree that he is mentally retarded.” She also stated, "The idea that courts are not permitted to acknowledge that a mistake has been made which would bar an execution is quite incredible for a country that not only prides itself on having the quintessential system of justice but attempts to export it to the world as a model of fairness.... [The federal habeas statute] should not be construed to require the unconstitutional execution of a mentally retarded offender who, by presenting evidence that virtually guarantees that he can establish his mental retardation, is able to satisfy even the preposterous burden of proof Georgia demands."

Lethal Injection Developments Around the Country

Controversies surrounding lethal injections continue in many parts of the country. In Georgia, the legislature passed a bill to classify the names of those involved in executions as “state secrets.” The bill requires the identity of any entity that “manufactures, supplies, compounds or prescribes” lethal injection drugs to be kept secret. In Arkansas, a state judge ruled that death row inmates cannot use the state's Freedom of Information Act to obtain information about the source, history, or quality of the drugs the state will use during execution. An attorney for the inmates claimed they should have a right to the information because of problems with drugs obtained in the past. On March 25, a federal appeals court heard arguments in a case involving death row inmates from across the country arguing that the Food and Drug Administration acted inappropriately in 2010 when it allowed some states to import lethal injection drugs from foreign sources. Eric Shumsky, an attorney representing the inmates, said, “This case is … about ensuring that illegal drugs are not used in carrying out otherwise legal executions.” Also recently, the Israel-based drug company Teva announced that it would resume manufacturing the sedative propofol, but would not allow its use in executions. Missouri has proposed using propofol for its executions.

Georgia Disabilities Expert Calls for Halt to Execution of Inmate with Mental Retardation

On February 19, Georgia is scheduled to execute Warren Hill, a death row inmate who has been diagnosed with mental retardation (intellectual disability). Over a decade ago, in Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. However, Hill continues to face execution because Georgia requires proof of retardation beyond a reasonable doubt, the strictest such standard in the country and one almost impossible to meet in mental health evaluations. In a recent op-ed in the Huffington Post, Eric Jacobson, the Executive Director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, wrote, “State law requires that individuals prove they have intellectual disability ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ a powerful legal concept that does not translate into the way individuals are assessed to determine if they have an intellectual disability. So, while Georgia never contested Mr. Hill's intellectual disability or I.Q. of 70, he was not able to meet the burden of proof.” Since the trial, several of the jurors now say the appropriate sentence for Hill is life without parole, which was not an option at the time of his trial. In addition, the family of the victim in the case supports life without parole instead of death for Hill. According to Jacobson, a family member said, “I and my family feel strongly that persons with any kind of significant mental disabilities should not be put to death.”

LAW REVIEWS: The Enduring Significance of Studies Showing Racial Bias in the Death Penalty

Professor Samuel R. Gross (pictured) of the University of Michigan Law School has published an article in the Iowa Law Review examining the historical importance of a series of studies showing racial bias in the death penalty. The issue of race was brought to a head by the Supreme Court's consideration of McCleskey v. Kemp in 1987. McCleskey focused on a statistical examination of Georgia death sentences conducted by David Baldus. Though the study found compelling and statistically significant evidence of racial bias in sentencing, the Court held (5-4) this evidence insufficient to overturn Warren McCleskey's death sentence. Prof. Gross argues that, despite the Court's negative holding, the Justices were convinced that racial bias existed in the death penalty. "Even on the Supreme Court that sent Warren McCleskey to his death, even among the Justices who most strongly support the death penalty, nobody has tried to deny that racial 'sympathies and antipathies' decide who lives and who dies. No Justice said otherwise in McCleskey and none have denied it since." Gross concludes that Baldus' legacy was in "forc[ing] reluctant judges to face up to facts they would have preferred to ignore." Prof. Baldus of the University of Iowa died in 2011.

REPRESENTATION: Georgia Death Sentence Upheld Despite Drunk Trial Attorney

A federal appeals court upheld the death sentence of Georgia inmate Robert Holsey (pictured), despite the fact that Holsey's lead lawyer drank a quart of vodka every day during the trial and was about to be sued for stealing client funds.  The attorney himself testified that he “probably shouldn’t have been allowed to represent anybody.” The court assumed the attorney's incompetence, but gave great deference to the Georgia Supreme Court's opinion that his poor performance did not affect the outcome of even the sentencing phase of the trial.  Judge Rosemary Barkett dissented in the 2-1 decision, noting the jury never heard evidence that Holsey was abused so badly as a child that his neighbors referred to his home as "the torture chamber." Had the jury heard evidence of the "horrific child abuse," she wrote, he likely would not have been sentenced to death. Holsey’s appeals lawyer, Brian Kammer, said the jury did not hear that crucial evidence because Holsey’s lead trial attorney “opted to anesthetize himself with vodka rather than prepare adequately to defend against the death penalty. The 11th Circuit majority appears similarly to have anesthetized its sense of justice.”

Lack of Funding for Representation Delays Georgia Death Penalty Cases

A Georgia judge has removed Kelvin Johnson's public defenders from representing him in a death penalty case because his lawyers requested more time to prepare for trial.  Johnson was being represented by attorneys from the Georgia Capital Defender Office, who said a delay was needed because an overwhelming caseload and lack of funding precluded them from going forward at this time. The Georgia Capital Defender program, which was started to provide better representation to indigent capital defendants, began representing those facing the death penalty in 2005, but saw its funding drop from $7 million to $4.5 million in only three years. Insufficient funding has led to problems and delays in several cases, including one instance in 2010 when attorneys asked the Georgia Supreme Court to dismiss the charges against their client or bar the state from seeking the death penalty because they could not pay expert witnesses, attorney fees or investigators. Superior Court Judge David Roper, who dismissed the capital defenders from the Kelvin Johnson case, plans to appoint lawyers of his own choosing, calling the Capital Defender Office "systemically broken."  However, W. Travis Sakrison, executive director of the Defender Office, said the delay needed in the Johnson case arose from special circumstances and was not due to "systemic" problems at the Georgia Capital Defender.

Executions Scheduled for July 18 in Texas and Georgia Present Serious Mental Health Issues

Yokamon Hearn (pictured) is facing execution in Texas on July 18 despite clear evidence of brain damage since his early childhood. Hearn’s trial attorneys failed to conduct an adequate investigation into Hearn’s early history, which would have uncovered mitigating evidence that he was neglected by his parents and had a history of mental health problems. His mother's alcoholism was so severe that she drank to the point of passing out during her pregnancy with Mr. Hearn.  He has been diagnosed with a disabling condition known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  Hearn’s current attorneys said there is a strong likelihood that one or more jurors would have reached a different sentencing conclusion had they been presented this important mitigating evidence.  Further interfering with an adequate review of Hearn's case is Texas's resistance to apply a recent Supreme Court decision regarding inadequate representation at both trial and appeal.  UPDATE: Hearn was executed on July 18.

In Georgia, the State Board of Pardons and Parole denied Warren Hill’s request to commute his death sentence on July 16. He, too, is scheduled to die on July 18. UPDATE: Execution date changed to July 23, as state changes to a single-drug execution protocol.  A recent article in The Atlantic noted the common thread in Hearn's and Hill's cases.  While in prison between the age of 28 and 33, Warren Hill tested at a grade level of approximately 6-7, and had an IQ within the range of mental retardation. Mr. Hill’s attorneys described his childhood: “Mr. Hill has suffered from neurological impairment since birth, manifested in a vulnerability to seizures and in mental retardation. During his school years, his teachers and fellow students regarded him as the slowest student in class. Because there were no special education programs available in the segregated schools attended by Mr. Hill, his teachers opted for 'social promotion,' an informal but then-common practice of moving students on to higher grades in spite of their inability to master age-appropriate work.”  Although a state judge agreed that Hill met the criteria for the diagnosis of mental retardation, the Georgia Supreme Court later said Hill failed to prove his intellectual disability “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  See Hill's Motion for a Stay of Execution filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on July 16.