Warren Hill Death Penalty Delayed

On Monday, a Georgia judge granted Warren Lee Hill temporary stay of execution just three hours before his scheduled injection.

The stay was granted to give Superior Court Judge Gail Tusan more time to consider a Georgia state law that protects the identities of companies which manufacture lethal-injection drugs.

Georgia House Bill 121, colloquially known as "The Lethal Injection Secrecy Act," was passed after many anti-death penalty groups boycotted pharmaceutical companies entirely when they learned the companies manufactured the lethal drug barbiturate pentobarbital. Public protests led to a shortage of the drug and the passage of the bill last March.

Hill's lawyers argued yesterday that the "use of an unknown, anonymously compounded substance not conforming to FDA guidelines for drug safety" violates the Eighth Amendment by possibly subjecting the defendant to cruel and unusual punishment.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Hill's ongoing mental health debate throughout his time on death row. Seven experts were brought in to asses Hill's mental state in 2000. Initially only four out of the seven identified him as "mentally retarded," the legal term still used in Georgia to identify an individual with a mental disability. But earlier this year, the three remaining experts changed their decisions, making the opinion unanimous.

The Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002 prohibits the execution of a mentally disabled individual, but allows states to set their own definition of "mental retardation." In Georgia defendants must prove to be handicapped "beyond a reasonable doubt." No other state has such a high standard.

Twenty people have been given the death penalty in the last 10 years in Georgia.

Creative Loafing, an Atlanta-based newspaper, puts the weight of the standard into perspective. "And when an IQ score of 69 (mentally retarded) means life in prison 70 (borderline) means the death penalty and some experts say mentally retarded and some say borderline, a judge will not find that the super-high standard of 'beyond a reasonable doubt' has been met."

Hill was sentenced to life in prison after fatally shooting his 18-year-old girlfriend in 1985. In 1990 he was sentenced to the death penalty after killing fellow inmate John Handspike with a nail-studded board at a state prison. 

Yesterday's decision marks the third time he has been just hours from receiving his lethal injection. Earlier this year he was granted another stay because of new evidence regarding his mental state.

The legality of the "Lethal Injection Secrecy Law" and the future of Hill will be discussed Thursday, July 18, and his execution could take place as early as Thursday evening.