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Georgia Supreme Court halts Warren Hill execution

The Supreme Court of Georgia [official website] on Monday unanimously granted a stay of execution for death row inmate Warren Lee Hill [JURIST news archive] 90 minutes before he was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection [DPIC backgrounder]. The court granted the stay [press release] to consider an appeal by Hill, 52, regarding the recent change by the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) [official website; press release] to its lethal injection protocol, the traditional three-drug "cocktail" having been replaced with a single dose of the sedative pentobarbital. Hill's appeal claims that the DOC decision is subject to Georgia's Administrative Procedure Act, which requires public hearings before such a change is made. In a separate order [press release] the court also denied Hill's request to hear his appeal of last week's Butts County Superior Court ruling, which held that Hill had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt [JURIST report] that he is mentally disabled, and that the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard itself is constitutional. The Superior Court decision noted that Hill has proven an IQ of 70 beyond a reasonable doubt, and further stated that he meets the overall criteria for being mentally disabled by a preponderance of the evidence, but found that Hill failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that overall he is mentally disabled. Georgia is the only state in the US that requires proof of mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt.

This week Terrica Ganzy [official profile], Staff Attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights [advocacy website], argued that Warren Hill was improperly sentenced to death [JURIST comment] and that Georgia should adopt a "preponderance of evidence" standard for mentally disabled claims in capital offense cases. Last week after the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Hill's petition for clemency [JURIST report] the DOC delayed his execution for several days in order to make the changes to its lethal injection protocol. Also last week UN Special Rapporteur on arbitrary executions Christof Heyns [official website] urged the US not to execute [JURIST report] Hill. The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled in Atkins v. Virginia [opinion; Cornell LII backgrounder] that the execution of mentally retarded individuals is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment [text]. However, in 29 states, including Texas, Tennessee and New Jersey [JURIST reports], the defendant still carries the burden of proving mental retardation in death-penalty [JURIST news archive] cases to receive a lesser sentence. Guest columnist Olga Vlasova argues [JURIST op-ed] that the Supreme Court should prohibit the death penalty for severely mentally ill offenders.

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