The Georgia Supreme Court has denied a constitutional challenge to the state’s statutory requirement that a capital defendant must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she is intellectually disabled before being declared ineligible for the death penalty.

In an 8-1 ruling issued on June 1, 2021, the Georgia high court affirmed the conviction and death sentence imposed on Rodney Young. Young had argued that requiring a capital defendant to meet the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard — the harshest in the country — created an unacceptable risk that Georgia would execute individuals whose intellectual disability should protect them from capital punishment.

Three justices issued a concurring opinion disassociating themselves from the reasoning of the lead opinion but agreeing with the outcome. One justice concurred only in the result. Justice Charles J. Bethel dissented.

Young’s lawyer, Brian Stull, from the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, called the Georgia court’s ruling “devastating.”

In an email to the Associated Press, Stull said that “Georgia’s uniquely high and onerous burden means that people with intellectual disability will be executed.” Stull indicated that Young intended to seek review of the case in the U.S. Supreme Court to “ask it to correct the injustices coming out of Georgia once and for all.”

Since Georgia adopted its high burden of proof in 1988, only one of 379 capitally charged defendants tried before a jury has ever been found to be guilty but intellectually disabled. No Georgia jury has ever found a defendant charged with an intentional killing to be intellectually disabled.

The U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty for individuals with intellectual disability. Subsequently, in Hall v. Florida and Moore v. Texas, the Court struck down state laws that defined intellectual disability in a manner that deviated from accepted clinical definitions of the disorder and created an unacceptable risk that persons who clinically would be considered intellectually disabled would nevertheless be executed.

However, the Supreme Court has declined in several cases to review Georgia prisoners’ challenges raising this issue. In 2015, the Court permitted the execution of Warren Hill to proceed, despite the unanimous agreement of expert witness that Hill met the clinical criteria for intellectual disability to a reasonable degree of medical certainty and a determination by a Georgia court that he had proven intellectual disability by a preponderance of the evidence.

The Georgia Supreme Court’s Ruling in Young’s Case

In separate opinions, a four-justice plurality of the court and a three-justice concurring opinion set forth their reasons for rejecting Young’s intellectual disability claim.

The plurality opinion by Chief Justice Harold Melton, joined by Justices John J. Ellington, Carla Wong McMillian, and Shawn Ellen Lagrua, distinguished Young’s Eighth Amendment challenge to his death eligibility from those presented in Hall and Moore, which the plurality characterized as dealing solely with the substantive definition of intellectual disability. Georgia’s burden of proof did not affect the elements of what constitutes intellectual disability, the plurality said, only the burden of proving whether the disorder was present.

Treating the burden of proof as a procedural issue that implicated due process concerns, the plurality likened intellectual disability to an affirmative defense to criminal liability. The plurality viewed asserting a claim of death ineligibility because of intellectual disability to raising an insanity defense, for which the Supreme Court has allowed states to require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The plurality opinion did not address whether the Georgia statute created an unacceptable risk that individuals with intellectual disability would be executed.

Justice David Nahmias, joined by Justices Michael P. Boggs and Nels S.D. Peterson, concurred in the result, specifically addressing Young’s intellectual disability challenge. Justice Nahmias noted that state courts are bound only by the holdings of U.S. Supreme Court cases, not by its reasoning. While “some of the reasoning of [Hall and Moore], particularly their disapproval of state measures that ‘creat[e] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed,’ certainly casts doubt on this State’s uniquely high standard of proof,” Nahmias wrote, “[t]he holdings of those two cases do not address what standard of proof may be used to evaluate an intellectual disability claim.” As a result, he said, “they plainly do not affect Georgia’s law.”

Nahmias further wrote that he believed, “if the United States Supreme Court, as currently comprised, is called on to decide whether Georgia’s beyond-a-reasonable-doubt-standard for proof of intellectual disability violates the Eighth Amendment, a majority of the Justices would not extend the holdings of Hall and Moore to strike down our State’s statute, notwithstanding the reasoning of the majority opinions in those two cases.”

In dissent, Justice Bethel argued that the constitutional concern that animated the Supreme Court’s rulings in Hall and Moore compelled striking down Georgia’s approach to addressing intellectual disability. Just as with statutes that required intellectually disabled defendants to prove facts that deviated from contemporary diagnostic criteria, Georgia’s use of “the highest burden of proof known to our judicial system is also unreasonable because it fails to protect intellectually disabled persons who are unable to prove that fact beyond a reasonable doubt.”


Bill Rankin, Georgia Supreme Court reaf­firms con­vic­tion, sen­tence for death row inmate, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 1, 2021; Kate Brumbeck, Georgia high court upholds man’s death sen­tence, Associated Press, June 1, 2021; Stanley Dunlap, Ga. Supreme Court Upholds State’s Strict Death Penalty Disability Standard, Georgia Public Broadcasting, June 2, 2021; Cedra Mayfield, No Defendant Has Ever Met This Burden’: Inside Georgia’s Death Sentence Ruling, Daily Report Online, June 12021.

Read the Georgia Supreme Court’s rul­ing in Young v. State.