JACKSON, Ga. (AP) — The Georgia Supreme Court stayed Monday's scheduled execution of a man convicted of killing a fellow prison inmate, saying it would review a defense challenge based on the state's recent switch to a single-drug injection.
Warren Lee Hill had been scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. at the state penitentiary in Jackson. But the state high court said Monday afternoon it was unanimously staying the execution to consider Hill's appeal challenging Georgia's shift last week to a single-drug execution method.
The 52-year-old's case had drawn national attention as it put a spotlight on Georgia's toughest-in-the nation requirement for death row inmates who seek to prove they are mentally disabled. Hill's lawyers have argued he is mentally disabled and should be spared execution for that reason since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing the mentally disabled is cruel and unusual and Georgia law prohibits it.
The state has said Hill's defense lawyers failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill is mentally disabled, which is required under Georgia law.
The high court on Monday also denied Hill's request that it reconsider a challenge on those grounds.
Hill was convicted in the Aug. 17, 1990, beating death of Joseph Handspike. Hill was serving a life sentence at the time for the shooting death of his 18-year-old girlfriend. Hill was convicted in 1991 on charges of malice murder, felony murder and aggravated assault in Handspike's death and the jury recommended the death sentence.
During Hill's trial for Handspike's murder, a correctional officer testified that he went to the inmates' sleeping quarters early in the morning after hearing a loud noise. The officer and another witness testified that Hill attacked Handspike when he was asleep and unable to defend himself and used a board to beat him badly in the upper body and face. Inmates who witnessed the attack testified that Hill looked like someone "chopping wood with an ax."
Hill was the first Georgia inmate scheduled to be executed since the state announced last week it was changing from a three-drug combination to one lethal dose of the sedative pentobarbital to carry out court-ordered death sentences. The state previously used pentobarbital to sedate inmates before injecting pancuronium bromide to paralyze them and then potassium chloride to stop their hearts. Hill's execution, initially scheduled for last Wednesday, was rescheduled for Monday when authorities announced the change in the execution procedure.
"I am profoundly grateful that the Supreme Court entered this stay of execution," said Hill's lawyer, Brian Kammer, after learning of the court's decision to hear the appeal based on the execution method change.
At issue, the court said, was the question raised by the defense as to whether the switch to a single drug was subject to the state's Administrative Procedure Act, which requires public hearings before such a change is made. The high court's order did not specify how long its consideration of the issue would take.
The state attorney general's office had no comment on the court's decision to stay the execution.
Kammer said he is disappointed that the state Supreme Court rejected his appeal of a state court ruling denying reconsideration of defense arguments that Hill is mentally disabled and, therefore, shouldn't be executed.
"But I plan to go to the U.S. Supreme Court with that to see what they have to say about it," Kammer said.
The court said Justice Robert Benham was the lone dissenter as the panel denied a review of the mentally disabled claim.
Georgia passed a law in 1988 prohibiting the execution of mentally disabled death row inmates, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the execution of mentally disabled offenders is unconstitutional.
A state court judge had earlier found the evidence in the case indicates beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill has an IQ of 70. The judge also had found that Hill meets the overall criteria for mental retardation by a preponderance of the evidence. But he refused to block Hill's execution, saying a "preponderance of evidence" is not sufficient to prove mental disability under Georgia law. He found that Georgia's "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard is not unconstitutional.
Georgia's standard of requiring death row inmates to prove mental disability beyond a reasonable doubt is the toughest in the country. 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 defense has said the high standard for proving mental disability is problematic because psychiatric diagnoses are subject to a degree of uncertainty that is virtually impossible to overcome. But Georgia's strict standard has repeatedly been upheld by state and federal courts.