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EDITORIALS: An Urgent Plea for Mercy”

Posted on Jul 10, 2012

EDITORIALS: "An Urgent Plea for Mercy"

A recent New York Times editorial encouraged the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to reduce the sentence of death row inmate Warren Hill to life. Hill is facing execution on July 18. The editorial noted that Mr. Hill’s intellectual disabilities, including an IQ of 70, led the trial judge to find him mentally retarded. Georgia’s Supreme Court, however, overturned the judge’s ruling because mental retardation had not been proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Times noted that Georgia “is the only state with a statute requiring a defendant to meet [this] unfairly heavy burden,” and added, “This unjust procedural requirement effectively denies protection for the mentally impaired, as required by the Eighth Amendment.” The Times also said that clemency is appropriate for Hill because some jurors have said they would have sentenced him to life without parole if given the option, and the victim’s family has said he should not be executed. See the full editorial below.

An Urgent Plea for Mercy

The Supreme Court banned the death penalty for mentally retarded offenders a decade ago, but Georgia apparently has not gotten the message. It is the only state with a statute requiring a defendant to meet the unfairly heavy burden of proving retardation beyond a reasonable doubt. This stringent standard could be readily manipulated by experts, resulting in unconstitutional executions.

In a closely divided 4-to-3 ruling, the State Supreme Court wrongly upheld the statute on the grounds that the United States Supreme Court left it to the states to set procedures for deciding on retardation. This unjust procedural requirement effectively denies protection for the mentally impaired, as required by the Eighth Amendment.

This week, Georgia issued a warrant to execute Warren Lee Hill Jr., a death-row inmate convicted of murder, who has an I.Q. of 70. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles is the fail-safe in the state’s criminal justice system, with a mandate to exercise mercy when the court system has failed to come to a just result. That is clearly true in this case. The trial judge found that Mr. Hill was mentally retarded by applying the fairer “preponderance of the evidence” standard in determining his mental impairment.

The State Supreme Court, however, ruled that Mr. Hill had to prove his mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt. The dissent rightly argued that applying the tougher standard is unconstitutional because it imposes too high a risk that a court’s conclusion will be wrong. The dissent relied on the United States Supreme Court holding that it is unconstitutional to require a defendant to prove that he is incompetent to stand trial by any standard higher than a preponderance of the evidence.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit avoided correcting the state court’s stark constitutional error, claiming that a federal statute on habeas corpus review imposes severe limits so that Mr. Hill had to show “that no fair-minded jurist” could agree with the Georgia court. The United States Supreme Court denied a review of Mr. Hill’s case in June. He is scheduled for execution this month.

Jurors from this case said they would have sentenced Mr. Hill to life without parole if they had had the option. The family of the victim has said Mr. Hill should not be executed. The pardon board has the discretion and the duty to commute his sentence to life without parole. The legal and factual record strongly compels that just decision.

(“An Urgent Plea for Mercy,” New York Times, July 6, 2012, editorial.) See Editorials and Intellectual Disability. For more information, see Amnesty International’s page.