UN rights expert urges halt to US executions of mentally disabled individuals

UN rights expert urges halt to US executions of mentally disabled individuals

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[JURIST] UN Special Rapporteur on arbitrary executions Christof Heyns [official website] on Tuesday urged the US not to execute [press release] two individuals with “psychosocial disabilities” who are set to be put to death in Georgia and Texas. Warren Hill was set to be executed Wednesday in Georgia, but after the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied his petition for clemency [JURIST report] Monday, the Georgia Department of Corrections delayed his execution for several days in order to make changes to its lethal injection protocol. Heyns expressed concern that Georgia is the only state in the US that requires proof of mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt, rather than a preponderance of the evidence. According to Heyns, “this higher standard of proof, making it very difficult to demonstrate that one actually suffers from a psychosocial disability may, I fear, mean that Mr. Hill … would be a fatality in violation of international as well as domestic law.” Yokamon Laneal Hearn is set to be executed Wednesday in Texas. Heyns noted that “there is evidence to suggest that he also suffers from psychosocial disabilities. This includes an expert opinion that he is affected by structural brain dysfunction likely to have been caused by his mother’s alcohol abuse during pregnancy.” Heyns urged the US, Texas and Georgia governments “to demonstrate the moral and legal leadership expected of the strong democracy that the United States is by commuting the death sentences of Hill and Hearn, and show the importance it gives to the fundamental right to life.”

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia [opinion] 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. Internationally, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon [official profile] has called on all member states to abolish capital punishment entirely [JURIST report].