Impossible Proof: Intellectual Disabilities and the Death Penalty Commentary
Impossible Proof: Intellectual Disabilities and the Death Penalty
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JURIST Guest Columnist Terrica Ganzy, Staff Attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, argues Warren Hill was improperly sentenced to death and that Georgia should adopt a “preponderance of evidence” standard for mentally disabled claims in capital offense cases…

Ten years ago, the US Supreme Court, in Atkins v. Virginia, declared that executing those with intellectual disabilities, formerly “mental retardation,” violates the US Constitution. The Court reasoned that the limitations of defendants with intellectual disabilities places them at “special risk of wrongful execution.” The Court defined intellectual disabilities using the three Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV TR) criteria: (1) significant sub-average intellectual functioning (an IQ score of approximately 70 or below); (2) significant adaptive behavior deficits; and (3) manifestation of these limitations before the age of 18.

Warren Lee Hill is scheduled to be executed by the State of Georgia on July 23, 2012, for the 1990 murder of a fellow inmate. According to evidence presented in court, Hill has an IQ of 70 and has significant adaptive deficits that manifested before age 18. Hill has already been adjudicated to have an intellectual disability by a Georgia state court judge, using a preponderance of the evidence standard. But according to the state of Georgia, Mr. Hill is not exempted from execution. Why? Hill faces execution — despite meeting the Supreme Court’s definition, despite having been found by a judge to have an intellectual disability and despite the State conceding that Mr. Hill has intellectual disabilities — solely because he has failed to meet Georgia’s strict “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof.

Georgia is the only state in the nation that requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt for intellectual disabilities claims. Almost all other states use a preponderance of the evidence standard of proof, and a few use the “clear and convincing” standard. The beyond a reasonable doubt standard is nearly impossible to meet in the context of intellectual disability due, in part, to the wide range of intellectual functioning that fits within the spectrum of mental retardation. For example, a person with intellectual disability (IQ of 50 to 70) may be able to live independently and keep a job, whereas a person suffering from profound intellectual disability (IQ of 20 or below) may need full time care. Applying a beyond a reasonable doubt standard to such claims necessarily excludes the upper end of the spectrum, where defendants, although clearly within the limits of sub-average intellectual functioning and suffering from demonstrable adaptive behavior deficits, function at a level that could create a reasonable doubt in the minds of the average finder of fact. As Justice Leah Ward Sears, in her dissent to the Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling on the state’s appeal, so aptly stated:

Despite the federal ban on executing the mentally retarded, Georgia’s statute, and the majority decision upholding it, do not prohibit the state from executing mentally retarded people. To the contrary, the State may still execute people who are in all probability mentally retarded. The State may execute people who are more than likely mentally retarded. The State may even execute people who are almost certainly mentally retarded.

Arguably, the beyond a reasonable doubt standard excludes from protection all persons whose deficits in intellectual functioning cannot be determined by merely looking at them. Such a harsh standard of proof flies in the face of the constitutional prohibition against the execution of those with intellectual disabilities. The Supreme Court did not rule that only the most severely intellectually disabled are to be protected from execution. It ruled that all intellectually disabled persons are protected. Georgia’s requirement that capital defendants prove their intellectual disabilities beyond a reasonable doubt is, therefore, illegal under Atkins.

Certainly, Warren Hill would be able to prove that he is constitutionally exempted from execution in almost any other state in the nation. That he is scheduled to be executed because he cannot meet an impossible standard of proof utilized by only one state is beyond tragic. Georgia’s constitutionally impermissible use of a beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof should prompt the Supreme Court to stay Hill’s execution. He has proven his intellectual disabilities by a preponderance of the evidence — the only reasonable standard of proof by which such claims should be judged, and the standard of proof that in almost every state allows the protections afforded under Atkins to be fulfilled.

Terrica Ganzy is a Staff Attorney with the Law Firm of the Southern Center for Human Rights. She earned her B.A. from Tougaloo University in English and Humanities and graduated from the University of Virgina School of Law.

Suggested citation: Terrica Ganzy, Proving Intellectual Disabilities Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, JURIST – Hotline, July 23, 2012,

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