A man labeled by doctors and experts as "mentally disabled" was granted a stay of execution Wednesday night just 30 minutes prior to the state of Georgia's plan to put him to death by lethal injection.
The reprieve for Warren Hill was granted by a federal court which accepted the challenge by Hill's attorney that the death penalty in this case should be reviewed due to the mental capacity of the man and a 2002 Supreme Court decision that bars the execution of those deemed "mentally retarded."
Following the announcement by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Brian Kammer, Hill's attorney, issued the following statement: "All the doctors who have examined Mr. Hill are unanimous in their diagnosis of mental retardation, so there is no question that his execution would have been in violation of the US supreme court's 2002 ruling in Atkins v Virginia."
"The state of Georgia remains an extreme outlier in requiring that defendants prove they have mental retardation 'beyond a reasonable doubt'. This is the strictest standard in any jurisdiction in the nation. Even Warren Hill, a man with an IQ of 70 who is diagnosed as mentally retarded by every doctor who has examined him, found it impossible to meet this standard of proof."
And The Guardian's Ed Pilkington reported from the prison in Jackson, Georgia:
Hill, 53, had already taken an oral sedative of Ativan to help calm himself for the gurney before he learned of the stay of execution from the federal appeals court for the 11th circuit. The court agreed to consider the issue of his intellectual disabilities in the light of a 2002 US supreme court ruling that prohibits executions of "mentally retarded" prisoners as a breach of the constitutional safeguard against cruel and unusual punishment.
Georgia is the only state in the union that insists prisoners must prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that they have learning difficulties – a standard that experts say is almost impossible to achieve.
Hill had been scheduled to be executed at 7pm at the same prison where Troy Davis was put to death in September 2011 amid massive international outcry. Davis's death, despite substantial evidence of his innocence, prompted dramatic scenes at the prison where hundreds of protesters were confronted by armed Swat police armed with a police helicopter flying overhead.
Hill's scheduled execution attracted a comparatively small response, with few protesters and campaigners present in the prison grounds as the appointed hour approached. This was the second time in seven months that Hill has come close to the death chamber: last July he was spared by just 90 minutes and the experience was repeated on Tuesday night with just 30 minutes to go.