INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY: Determination of Mental Retardation in Florida and Georgia Under Review

On October 21, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a new case, Hall v. Florida (No. 12-10882), to determine whether the Florida Supreme Court properly upheld the death sentence of a man whose IQ is just above the state's standard for mental retardation. According to the state's law, defendants with an IQ above 70 cannot be considered intellectually disabled, even though most states use a broader definition and there is a margin of error in such IQ tests. Freddie Lee Hall's scores on three IQ tests ranged from 71 to 80. A state judge had previously found Hall to be mentally disabled, but the ruling took place before the state passed a law setting the IQ limit. The case will be argued later in the Supreme Court's term. In Georgia, a House committee will hold an out-of-session meeting to examine the state's strict standard for determining mental retardation in capital cases. Defendants are required to prove intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt, the strictest burden of proof in the nation.

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SUPREME COURT: High Court Declines to Review Georgia's Unusual Burden for Proving Mental Retardation

On the opening day of the U.S. Supreme Court's new term, the Justices announced they would not review the case of Warren Hill, a death row inmate in Georgia with multiple findings of intellectual disability. Hill petitioned the Court after three mental health experts, who initially said he was not mentally disabled, changed their assessment. The execution of inmates with mental retardation was ruled unconstitutional in 2002, but Georgia has the strictest standard in the nation for proving this mental disability--proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Brian Kammer, a lawyer for Hill, said, “Mr. Hill has been procedurally barred from proving his exemption from capital punishment, which is why he brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, in the hopes that the court would ensure that the evidence of his intellectual disability would be heard. It is tragic that our highest court has failed to enforce its own command that persons with mental retardation are categorically ineligible for the death penalty." Hill maintained he has met Georgia's exacting standard because all mental health experts who have tested him concur in his disability.

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STUDIES: ABA Criticizes Texas Death Penalty in Latest Report

On September 18, the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Due Process Review Project released its latest report, focusing on the fairness and accuracy of Texas’s death penalty system. The report found: “In many areas, Texas appears out of step with better practices implemented in other capital jurisdictions, fails to rely upon scientifically reliable methods and processes in the administration of the death penalty, and provides the public with inadequate information to understand and evaluate capital punishment in the state.” (Exec. Sum.) The assessment made several recommendations to help prevent wrongful convictions and improve due process, including requiring the indefinite preservation of biological evidence in violent crimes, abandoning the law's emphasis on predicting the “future dangerousness” of the defendant in deciding death sentences, and enacting appropriate statutes to deal with capital defendants with intellectual disabilities and severe mental illness. The report commended Texas on recent improvements to their justice system such as better lineup procedures, disclosure of police reports to the defense, and the establishment of two defender offices to provide capital representation throughout the state. The assessment team included Professor Jennifer Laurin from the University of Texas School of Law (Chair) and former Texas Governor Mark White.

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STUDIES: American Bar Association Releases Assessment of Virginia Death Penalty

On September 5, the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Due Process Review Project released its latest report, focusing on the fairness and accuracy of Virginia's death penalty system. The assessment recommended changes to the way the state handles defendants with mental retardation and severe mental illness. It also recommended requiring prosecutors to disclose additional information about testifying witnesses and allowing prosecutors to withdraw the death penalty even after charging a defendant with capital murder. The report was critical of the state's practice of setting an execution date before all appeals are complete because it "effectively provides less due process to those under a death sentence than that which is afforded to non-capital inmates." The report praised recent improvements in documenting police procedures for eyewitness identification and accreditation of crime laboratories, but recommended additional reforms. The assessment found the state to be not in compliance or only in partial compliance with many of the ABA's protocols for the death penalty. The assessment team included Mark Earley, the former Attorney General of Virginia, John Douglass (Chair), the Dean Emeritus of the University of Richmond Law School, and other leaders from the judicial and legislative communities.

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Repeated Execution Dates Called Psychological Torture

According to some experts, the process of repeatedly submitting a person to imminent execution is a form of psychological torture that should be banned. The Center for Constitutional Rights has said that “the intense strain of repeatedly coming within hours or days of execution” is torture. Citing the case of Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia in 2011 after repeated execution dates and stays, the Center remarked, “Is there any significant difference between mock executions, long recognized as torture by the international community, and Mr. Davis’s last-minute brush with death ...?” Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School professor, said that the terror of imminent executions is more difficult for someone like Warren Hill, who is mentally retarded and has had a series of execution dates, also in Georgia. Grassian said, “People with mental retardation struggle with the ability to think abstractly. They have very powerful feelings but because they have fewer cognitive strengths they are less able to manage those feelings than others are.” Hill came within hours of execution four times. At one time, he ate his last meal and said his goodbyes before his execution was stayed, ninety minutes before the scheduled time. More recently, Hill was already sedated and strapped to the gurney when his execution was stopped with just minutes to spare.

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The Writ of Habeas Corpus and the Warren Hill Case

UPDATE: Warren Hill was granted a stay of execution by a Georgia court just hours before his scheduled execution on July 15. A hearing is scheduled for July 18 to consider challenges to a new state law that shields the identity of the lethal injection drug's manufacturer and the prescribing physician from the public. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 15, 2013).

As a petition on behalf of Georgia death row inmate Warren Hill awaits consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, the role of habeas corpus in protecting defendants' fundamental rights has assumed greater importance. A recent article by Lincoln Caplan in the American Prospect explores the significance of the "Great Writ." This guarantee of constitutional protections allows federal courts to determine whether an inmate is being held in violation of the Constitution or other laws, and has been used to challenge death sentences that may have been unlawful. In 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was passed by the U.S. Congress, imposing a time limit on filing such petitions and generally allowing only one such petition. Hill's recent appeal containing clear proof of his mental retardation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit was denied because the court said it was a second petition and could only be considered if it related to his innocence, rather than his death sentence. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote, “The perverse consequence of such an application of AEDPA is that a federal court must acquiesce to, even condone, a state’s insistence on carrying out the unconstitutional execution of a mentally retarded person.” Hill is scheduled to be executed on July 15 unless the Supreme Court intervenes.

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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.”

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Controversial Texas Case on Mental Retardation Results in Life Sentence

Texas death row inmate Jose Garcia Briseño, whose case was used by the Texas courts to establish a very restrictive definition of mental retardation, has been resentenced to life without parole. His sentence was the result of a plea bargain ending years of litigation. Briseño has been on death row for over 20 years, and received a stay of execution in 2009 just 5 days before he was to be executed. Briseño's lawyers have argued he is intellectually disabled, and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, but a Texas court said his crime required forethought, planning, and complex execution, so he was not mentally retarded. No other state uses such non-scientific factors in determining intellectual disability. Recently, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities criticized the use of these "Briseño factors" in a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court: “[The Texas] impressionistic ‘test’ directs fact-finders to use ‘factors’ that are based on false stereotypes about mental retardation that effectively exclude all but the most severely incapacitated.” (Chester v. Thaler 2012). Staff from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had earlier intervened on Briseño's behalf because he had been so helpful to other inmates.

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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."

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EDITORIALS: "With Death Penalty Bans Gaining Steam, What's Next for Texas?"

The Dallas Morning News used the recent repeal of the death penalty in Maryland as an occasion to advocate for death-penalty reform in Texas. The editors commented on the overall impropriety of capital punishment: “At best, the death penalty is selectively used state-supported retribution, which has no place in a civilized society.” The editorial supported six pending bills aimed at improving the fairness of the death penalty. One bill would bar the use of informant testimony in death penalty cases if the testimony was obtained from a witness or accomplice in exchange for favorable treatment. Another bill would create criteria based on scientific standards for courts deciding whether a defendant has an intellectual disability that would exclude him from execution. A third bill would introduce a Racial Justice Act into law to protect against bias in death sentencing. Read full editorial below.

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