Former President Jimmy Carter is among those who have said the state pardons board should commute Warren Lee Hill’s death sentence to life in prison without parole. However, the state argues defense attorneys have failed to meet their burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill is mentally disabled. Hill was convicted of the 1991 murder of a fellow inmate.
Most states that impose the death penalty have a lower threshold for defendants to prove they are mentally disabled, while some states don’t set standards at all. Hill’s lawyer, Brian Kammer, said the high standard for proving mental disability is problematic because psychiatric diagnoses are subject to a degree of certainty that is virtually impossible to overcome.
Prosecutors have presented expert testimony and evidence that Hill is not disabled, while his attorneys have presented their own evidence to prove he is disabled. That can make it difficult to determine anything beyond a reasonable doubt, said Kay Levine, an associate professor of law at Emory University.
“Beyond a reasonable doubt can never be met if you’re simply not sure which side is unequivocally telling the truth and which side is not,” said Levine, who has no connection to the Hill case. “The issue with Georgia setting its mental health standard as high as it’s set is that it requires such a high level of certainty that even scientists will rarely reach.”
Nonetheless, Georgia’s strict standard has repeatedly been upheld by state and federal courts.
Last year, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an appeal of Hill’s case that it couldn’t strike down Georgia’s law because the U.S. Supreme Court allows states to create their own definitions for mentally disabled. The decision, written by Judge Frank Hull, noted the justices were careful not to set their own rigid guidelines for such a definition.
Even if Georgia “somehow inappropriately struck the balance” when it adopted its standard, Hull wrote, only the U.S. Supreme Court can overturn the state’s law.
The Supreme Court last month declined to hear Hill’s case, but his lawyer has already submitted a new request to the high court.
Diagnostic guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association for “mild mental retardation” — which is what Hill’s defense claims — include an IQ of approximately 50 to 70 and onset before age 18. The guidelines also include simultaneous deficits or impairments in the person’s effectiveness in meeting the standards expected for the person’s age or cultural group in at least two of the following areas: communication, self-care, home living, social/interpersonal skills, use of community resources, self-direction, functional academic skills, work, leisure, health and safety.
Georgia’s law reflects those guidelines, defining “mentally retarded” — which is the term used by the law — as “having significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning resulting in or associated with impairments in adaptive behavior which manifested during the developmental period.”