ATLANTA - Death penalty defendants in Georgia will have to prove they are mentally disabled beyond a reasonable doubt to avoid execution, the most stringent legal standard in the nation, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision said it couldn't strike down the Georgia law "even if we believe it incorrect or unwise" because the Supreme Court empowered each state to create its own definition for the mentally disabled. Most death penalty states have a lower threshold for defendants to prove they are mentally disabled, while six states don't set any.
The ruling comes as a disappointment for defense attorneys, who plan to appeal, and over the objections of four circuit judges. One of them, U.S. Circuit Judge Rosemary Barkett, wrote in a dissent that the law "eviscerates" the constitutional rights of mentally disabled offenders.
The case was brought by Warren Lee Hill Jr., who was sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a fellow inmate. Hill's IQ tests indicated that he may meet the medical definition of mild mental retardation, but a county judge found he didn't meet the other criteria required in Georgia to meet the standard.
His case eventually landed before the Georgia Supreme Court, which narrowly voted to uphold the law. The standard was struck down by a divided 11th Circuit panel last year, but the full court pulled an about-face on Tuesday after hearing oral arguments in February.
The decision, written by Judge Frank Hull, said when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the execution of mentally disabled offenders in 2002, the justices were careful not to set rigid guidelines for who meets that definition. Instead, the court empowered each state to develop "appropriate" standards for determining who was actually mentally disabled.
Even if Georgia "somehow inappropriately struck the balance" when it adopted its standard, Hull wrote, only the U.S. Supreme Court can overturn the state's law. And so far, she noted, the high court hasn't weighed in.
"We do not decide whether Georgia's burden of proof is constitutionally permissible, but only that no decision of the United States Supreme Court clearly establishes that it is unconstitutional," Hull wrote.
Hill's defense attorney, Brian Kammer, said he would "absolutely" appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
The opinion was met with a flurry of dissents. Circuit Judge Beverly Martin said the state law runs counter to the "Supreme Court's longstanding recognition that death is different." And Circuit Judge Charles Wilson argued the majority asked the wrong question and reached the wrong answer.
"We are not asking what the constitutionally proper burden of proof is. We are not even asking what the constitutionally proper burden of proof should be," he wrote. "We are simply asking what the constitutionally proper burden of proof cannot be. And it cannot be this."
Barkett, in a dissent joined by Martin and Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, noted Georgia's unique history on the divisive debate. She said while Georgia became the first state in 1988 to ban executing inmates who have a mental disability, "it is the only one to guarantee precisely the opposite result" by requiring offenders to meet the strict standard.
"No state has the power to deny citizens any of their federal constitutional rights," she wrote, adding that Georgia cannot "indirectly authorize the execution of mentally retarded offenders through a procedure that in practical operation accomplishes that result."