published Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Federal appeals court halts Georgia execution

JACKSON, Ga. — A federal appeals court halted the execution Tuesday of a Georgia man who killed a fellow prisoner in 1990, granting a last-minute stay to the inmate who defense attorneys argued was mentally disabled.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued the ruling for Warren Lee Hill as corrections officials prepared his lethal injection for later in the evening.

Earlier in the day, the state parole board, the Supreme Court of Georgia and the U.S. Supreme Court had all declined to stop the execution.

“We are greatly relieved that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed the execution of Warren Hill, a person with mental retardation. All the doctors who have examined Mr. Hill are unanimous in their diagnosis of mental retardation,” defense attorney Brian Kammer said in an email.

Hill was sentenced to death for the 1990 beating death of fellow inmate Joseph Handspike. Authorities say he used a board studded with nails to bludgeon Handspike while he slept as other prisoners watched and pleaded with Hill to stop. At the time Hill was already serving a life sentence for murder in the 1986 slaying of his girlfriend, Myra Wright, who had been shot 11 times.

Hill’s lawyers argue that he is mentally disabled and therefore shouldn’t be executed. The state maintains that the defense failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill is mentally disabled.

Hill has received support from various activists and from former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn.

“Georgia should not violate its own prohibition against executing individuals with serious diminished capacity,” President Carter said in a statement.

Death penalty defendants in Georgia have to prove they are mentally disabled beyond a reasonable doubt to avoid execution, the strictest standard in the country. Hill’s lawyers have 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.

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