The court’s 6-1 ruling concluded that death penalty defendants must prove they are mentally disabled “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the highest burden of proof in the legal system. The court’s decision means that Georgia is still the only state in the nation that applies the strict standard.
“We have previously addressed this very issue, and we now reiterate our prior holding that Georgia’s beyond a reasonable doubt standard is not unconstitutional,” read the opinion, written by Justice Harold Melton.
In a dissent, Justice Robert Benham warned the ruling greatly increases the chance that a mentally disabled person will be executed, which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed in a 2002 ruling.
The ruling is the latest scrutiny of the trailblazing policy Georgia etched out in 1988, when it became the first state to ban executing mentally disabled inmates. But Georgia also stands out as the only one that requires capital defendants to meet the high standard to avoid execution.
A federal three-judge panel last year struck down the law by a 2-1 vote, saying it could result in the execution of those with mental disabilities. The full 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is now reviewing the ruling.
The Georgia Supreme Court’s case involves a challenge brought by Alphonso Stripling, who claimed the state cannot seek the death penalty against him for the 1988 killings of two co-workers at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Douglasville because he is mentally disabled.
He was sentenced to death in 1989 for the shootings, but the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling breathed new life into Stripling’s appeal. After a four-day hearing, a county judge found there was enough evidence to back Stripling’s argument that he was mentally disabled.
Stripling’s attorneys then took aim at the standard of proof. They said that Georgia’s standard inevitably means that some mentally disabled inmates will be executed, which would violate the Supreme Court’s ruling. Prosecutors countered that the court has repeatedly upheld the legal standard applied to state death penalty claims.
The court’s majority agreed. Melton said the High Court’s 2002 ruling made “no negative comment about Georgia’s heightened standard of proof but, instead, counted Georgia among the states forming the national consensus about the treatment of mentally retarded defendants.”
It’s “entirely illogical that Georgia could have been part of the consensus dictating a categorical rule and yet somehow simultaneously stand in violation of that same rule,” he wrote.
Benham, though, said that Georgia should join the 22 other death penalty states that have adopted the less stringent standard of evidence for these cases.
“Are we so focused on maximizing the absolute penalty of death that we would risk wrongfully executing someone with a clinically identified mental disability?” Benham wrote. “To do so is an impermissible violation of our Constitution and a senseless assault against morality and human decency.”
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