The state of Georgia on Tuesday executed life-long intellectually disabled man Warren Lee Hill despite federal laws banning such killings and warnings from lawyers and disability rights advocates that the punishment is "cruel and unusual."
"Georgia has been allowed to execute an unquestionably intellectually disabled man, in direct contravention of the Supreme Court’s clear precedent prohibiting such cruelty," said Brian Kammer, Hill's attorney, following the execution. "The memory of Mr. Hill’s illegal execution will live on as a moral stain on the people of this state and on the courts that allowed this to happen."
Hill, aged 54, was killed Tuesday night after the state launched a vigorous four year battle to execute him. The Supreme Court on Tuesday denied him a stay of execution, offering no explanation for the ruling.
The top court decision came despite its apparent contradiction of previous Supreme Court precedent.
A 2002 Supreme Court ruling outlawed the death penalty for prisoners considered mentally disabled (referred to as "mentally retarded" in the ruling). Further, in May of last year, the Supreme Court ruled that states may not arbitrarily define mental disability for themselves because "it creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disabilities will be executed."
However, the state's arbitrary imposition of its own definition of intellectual disability played a key role in its campaign to kill Hill.
Each of the seven medical professionals who evaluated Hill—including experts retained by Georgia’s Attorney General—unanimously concluded that he was mentally impaired. However, Georgia said that his intellectual disability must be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt": a requirement that is not a federal standard, and according to experts, not based in science.
"This standard means that you could have multiple expert clinicians agree that a defendant has an intellectual disability, as is the case here," wrote Peter Berns, an advocate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, in an op-ed published Monday. "But any 'reasonable' doubt cast on their diagnoses will cancel the protection afforded under the U.S. Constitution. Medical diagnoses are made to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty and are not necessarily free from 'reasonable doubt' as that phrase is used in a legal context."
"In rejecting guidance from medical experts, Georgia has created a uniquely stringent burden of proof that is simply unfair," Berns continued.
Numerous organizations and people had called for a stay of Hill's execution, including disability rights organizations, the American Bar Association, Georgia's NAACP and ACLU chapters, and the Council of Europe.
The NAACP, the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, and Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty released a statement on Tuesday slamming the state's legal system for "failing to protect those who are most vulnerable," CNN reports.