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Sunday, December 16 , 2018, 6:01 pm | Fair 58º


Diane Dimond: Executing the Mentally Disabled?

Death-penalty case of Warren Lee Hill Jr. proves that sometimes the devil is in the details

When I saw the headlines, my stomach lurched. The state of Georgia has issued an execution warrant for a retarded man? Oh, good grief, I thought, has America come to this?

Despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling more than a decade ago banning the execution of retarded citizens, Georgia was going to go ahead and send Warren Lee Hill Jr. to the death chamber anyway?

Multiple news stories told me plans to execute Hill were moving forward because he couldn’t prove he was mentally retarded “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Why would the state of Georgia put that kind of caveat on retardation? I wondered. How could they possibly want to put to death a man who didn’t have the capacity to know right from wrong?

Then I did some research and remembered why it’s so important to look past the headlines. I came to realize that lawyers for two-time convicted murderer Hill may have been trying to game the system.

Look, anyone who reads this column regularly knows I struggle mightily with my opinion of the death penalty. I’m not for it — but then again, if the criminal has committed multiple crimes (like a serial killer) or crimes against a child well, then, my anti-execution resolution gets shaky.

The saga of the 52-year-old Hill is a long one. It starts in 1986, when he murdered his 18-year-old girlfriend by shooting her 11 times. He was convicted and sent to the Lee Correctional Institution to serve life in prison. There, he murdered again when he beat to death another inmate as he slept in his bed.

According to the case file, “Hill removed a 2-by-6 (foot) board that served as a sink leg in the prison bathroom and forcefully beat the victim numerous times with the board about the head and chest as onlooking prisoners pleaded with him to stop.” The board was studded with nails, and Hill, reportedly, mocked the man as he beat the life out of him.

The injuries sustained by victim Joseph Handspike were brutal. Several of his teeth were knocked out, his left eye was detached from the socket, and he was unable to speak to guards for the blood pouring from his mouth and nose. He died in a hospital emergency room 90 minutes later from blunt-force trauma.

It may be grisly to read such details, but I think it is important to include in any discussion about clemency for criminals the damage they inflicted on their victims. That must be central to any conversation.

During Hill’s second murder trial, in 1991, his own attorney called a clinical psychologist who testified Hill had an IQ of 77 (mild retardation is designated by an IQ between 59 and 69). While below normal intelligence, Dr. William Dickinson testified, Hill was able to fully understand right from wrong and the ramifications of his actions. A high school friend called Hill “bright, sharp and mature.” After graduating high school, evidence showed, Hill joined the Navy and rose to the rank of seaman second class. The jury unanimously convicted Hill of malice murder, and he received a death sentence.

In 1993, Hill’s attorney appealed his conviction to the Georgia Supreme Court and again did not claim mental retardation as a defense. The state’s high court rejected the appeal.

In 1996 — more than five years after the inmate’s murder — suddenly, lawyers for Hill claimed he could not be put to death because he was clinically retarded. They pegged his IQ at 70, which is still a point above those called “mildly retarded.”

There has been a lot of legal back and forth in this case since that declaration of retardation, but the bottom line now is: Hill is set to be executed at 7 p.m. Wednesday. This makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like the idea of state-sanctioned killing, but I certainly understand the case better now that I took the time to dig into it.

None of the battery of psychological tests Hill took before his lawyers professed he was mentally deficient showed any signs of retardation. Yet Hill’s attorney, Brian Kammer, maintains, “It is morally wrong to execute someone who has been found more likely than not to be mentally retarded.” He says his client has a mental capacity of a sixth-grader.

Georgia is no backward state when it comes to this issue. In 1988, Georgia became the first in the nation to abolish capital punishment for mentally retarded convicts — as long as they could prove their handicap beyond a reasonable doubt. And therein lies the rub for Hill. There is, on the very face of this case, a reasonable doubt about his claim.

But there is no doubt that Hill has murdered twice, and his 18-year-old girlfriend Myra Wright and inmate Joseph Handspike — ripped apart by bullets and a board — were never given the option of losing their life via a quiet lethal injection.

Diane Dimond is the author of Cirque Du Salahi: Be Careful Who You Trust. Click here for more information. She can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond.

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