Doctors say Georgia death row inmate mentally disabled

Doctors say Georgia death row inmate mentally disabled

February 14th, 2013 by Associated Press in Local - Breaking News

ATLANTA - Lawyers for a Georgia man set to be executed next week released sworn statements Thursday from three doctors who originally testified for the state but who now say they've changed their opinions and believe he is mentally disabled.

All three doctors write in affidavits that they changed their diagnoses after reviewing evidence, testimony and documents in the case of Warren Lee Hill. Lawyers for Hill, who is set to be executed Tuesday, have long argued he shouldn't be executed because he is mentally disabled. State law and a previous U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibit states from executing people who are mentally disabled.

"Having reviewed my earlier evaluation results and the far more extensive materials from the record of this case, I believe that my judgment that Mr. Hill did not meet the criteria for mild mental retardation was in error," wrote Dr. Thomas Sachy wrote in an affidavit.

Hill's defense plans to submit the doctors' statements to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles when it requests a new clemency hearing, as well as to a state court that has previously declined to overturn his death sentence, said lawyer Brian Kammer.

The state has consistently argued that Hill's defense has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is mentally disabled. Hill's lawyers have said that burden of proof is virtually impossible to meet. Georgia's strictest-in-the-nation standard for proving mental disability has repeatedly been upheld by state and federal courts.

The attorney general's office did not have a comment on the statements.

"We have not received any materials from defense counsel," said spokeswoman Lauren Kane. "Our responses will be filed in court as motions are received."

Hill was sentenced to death in Lee County 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 was originally set to be executed in July, but the state Supreme Court granted him a stay while his lawyers pursued a challenge based on the state's changing of execution method right before his scheduled execution.

The state Supreme Court earlier this month found that the decision to replace a three-drug combination with one drug for executions is not subject to the Georgia Administrative Procedure Act, so changing the execution method does not require public hearings as Hill's lawyers had argued.

The three doctors whose statements were released by Hill's defense served as witnesses for the state and testified in December 2000 that Hill was not mentally disabled but rather demonstrated borderline intellectual functioning.

Sachy saw articles about Hill's impending execution in late July and remembered having testified as a witness at the 2000 hearing. Not realizing the case had already been stayed, he reached out to Hill's lawyers

"I told counsel I felt that my previous conclusions about Mr. Hill's mental health status were unreliable because of my lack of experience at the time, and I wanted to revisit the case," Sachy wrote.

The other two doctors, Dr. Donald Harris and Dr. James Carter, were approached by Hill's defense this month, they wrote in their statements. After being told about Sachy's reconsideration, they agreed to also review the case and reached the same conclusion, they wrote. All three said their initial consideration of the case was rushed because of a short timeline from the examination to the hearing and that their experience and scientific understanding has increased in the intervening 12 years.

"We in the clinical community now understand better that persons with mild mental retardation are capable of such things as holding a job, working under close supervision, buying and driving a car, and so forth. It is precisely because significant deficits in cognition, judgment, and impulse control can be masked by superficial functionality in cases of mild mental retardation that such persons may sometimes not be identified in court proceedings as being intellectually disabled," Harris wrote. "I believe this has happened in Mr. Hill's case."