ATLANTA - The execution of a Georgia man whose attorneys claim he is mentally disabled remained on hold today after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to lift a stay.
Less than an hour before Warren Lee Hill was set to die Tuesday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stepped in and temporarily stopped the execution, saying it wanted more time to look at statements from doctors who now believe Hill is mentally disabled. The three doctors testified in 2000 that Hill was not mentally disabled.
In a 2-1 decision, the 11th Circuit judges said they were temporarily halting the execution to give Hill a chance to argue a federal court should reconsider his case.
The state of Georgia said the doctors' new statements were not credible and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the stay. The government also said Hill was procedurally barred from asking a federal court to reconsider his case.
Hill was sentenced to die for the 1990 beating death of fellow inmate Joseph Handspike. Authorities said he used a board studded with nails to bludgeon Handspike while he slept. 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 have long argued that he should not be executed because he is mentally disabled. The state maintains that the defense failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill is mentally disabled.
Georgia passed a law in 1988 prohibiting the execution of mentally disabled death row inmates, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the execution of mentally disabled offenders was unconstitutional. But Georgia also has the strictest-in-the-nation standard for death row inmates seeking to avoid execution, requiring them to prove their mental disability beyond a reasonable doubt.
Most states that impose the death penalty have a lower threshold, while some don't set standards at all.
Defense lawyer Brian Kammer said Hill will now get a chance over the next month to argue his claim "given the newly available evidence which establishes consensus among every doctor who has evaluated Mr. Hill that he is mentally retarded."
In new statements released by Hill's lawyers last week, the doctors wrote they were rushed in their evaluation at the time, they had acquired additional experience and there had been scientific developments in the intervening 12 years.
As of last week, Georgia had enough of execution drug pentobarbital to perform six executions, but that supply was set to expire March 1. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision means Hill will not likely be scheduled for execution before that happens.
The state has said it is confident it will be able to obtain the drug for future executions, but has not provided any details.
Hill was one of two inmates scheduled to be executed this week. Andrew Allen Cook was set for execution this evening. The Georgia Court of Appeals issued stays in both executions.
In a combined legal challenge before the court, attorneys for Cook and Hill argue the state is violating the law by using pentobarbital in executions without a prescription. The state argues that challenge is frivolous. The Georgia Supreme Court is considering the case.