On Monday, less than two hours before his scheduled execution time, Warren Hill was granted a stay by the Georgia Supreme Court pending a review of a recent change made to Georgia’s lethal-injection protocol. Although this gives Hill and his lawyers more time, the postponement of his execution is not based on the same reason that his case garnered so much attention in the media.
Hill was convicted and given a life sentenced for shooting his girlfriend in 1985 before he was sentenced to death row after killing another inmate in 1990. With an I.Q. of 70, however, Hill is legally mentally retarded. Advocacy groups for the mentally disabled around the country have been lobbying the courts to allow Hill to serve the rest of his sentence in jail without parole, citing the 2002 Supreme Court case Atkins v. Virginia, which asserted that executing someone who is mentally handicapped goes against the Eighth Amendment that bans cruel and unusual punishment. Due to Georgia’s stringent policy that mental retardation must be proved beyond reasonable doubt, Hill’s appeals have been denied. Nonetheless, his case is proof that the death penalty is unnecessary, especially since it affects people who are mentally disabled.
Hill’s scheduled execution comes on the heels of another controversial case of Yokamon Hearn in Texas. Hearn was convicted in 1998 for shooting another man at a car wash in Dallas. His lawyers tried to argue that he was not eligible for the death penalty because of his mental disabilities, but his appeal was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A report by NPR stated that there are roughly 350,000 mentally ill people in prison, while another study claims that 5 – 10% of all death row inmates “suffer from serious mental illness” or disability as well.
Hopefully the attention surrounding the cases of Hill and Hearn will undoubtedly lead to a renewed debate over the merits of the death penalty. As unfortunate as the fates of Hill and Hearn are, at the very least perhaps they can highlight the consequences of a legal system that fails to protect its citizens when the citizens are criminals.