Charlie Harper: Matters of life and death

July 9, 2013 

On Monday, July 15, Warren Hill is scheduled to die by lethal injection at the Georgia Diagnostic State Prison in Jackson. Mr. Hill has seen execution dates come and go as is often the custom in death penalty cases. Such appeals and stays of execution are part of the system of checks and balances required if the state is to use the ultimate punishment it can offer -- the taking of a life.

But in Mr. Hill's case -- a man who has an IQ of 70 and is mentally retarded -- the fact that we are again nearing yet another execution date is showing that Georgia's death penalty is a system full of checks, but little hint of balances.

This is not a column advocating for the repeal of Georgia's death penalty. Far from it. As has been written in this space before, there is a huge difference between cases such as Troy Davis' where last minute "evidence" appeared in media accounts but did not appear in courts of law. This, rather, is a case that illustrates that Georgia has the highest burden of proof for a defendant to prove mental retardation. Furthermore, once that burden has been met, there is almost no way under Georgia's law for subsequent evidence to clarify or change the sentence of death once rendered.

Warren Hill's guilt is not at issue. He killed a fellow inmate while serving time for a previous murder. He is not someone who will be returned to society in hopes that he can be reformed and rehabilitated. At the time of his original trial and sentencing, however, the option of life without parole did not exist. Today, instead, Georgia prepared to bring an international spotlight on itself for the execution of a man who even the state experts who evaluated him during his original trial now concede via sworn affidavit is mentally retarded.

The three state medical experts who originally stated that Mr. Hill was fit to stand trial and eligible for the death penalty have since recanted their testimony. Furthermore, during sentencing, the victim's family wasn't even notified of the opportunity to give testimony to their opinion -- usually the kind of thing that makes headlines when the family wants death. In this case, however, the family of John Handspike doesn't wish to see Hill executed.

Their victim impact statement and testimony were apparently not needed to sway the jury when considering whether an unsympathetic person such as Warren Hill should be allowed to continue to live, at the expense of the state. And yet, it is precisely because he is so unsympathetic that our system of checks must have balances. Mr. Hill is only receiving the procedural check thus far.

These customary checks made it through a 2012 appeal, in which a Georgia State Court judge ruled that Hill is a person with mental retardation, but that he did not meet the standard "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is a check without balance. And the headlines around the world are ready with that one declaration to announce next Monday that Georgia has executed a man it knows to be mentally retarded.

There is no greater power that the state has than to take a life. There should be no greater balance applied against that state power than when this power is contemplated. And yet, in Mr. Hill's case, it appears that his life and justice, not only for him but also for his victim, has been reduced to a time-consuming bureaucratic maze of paper shuffling leading to an untimely but inevitable conclusion.

Justice with respect to death penalty cases is rarely swift. But at its conclusion, it must be certain. The appeals process cannot be allowed to be a never-ending series of last-minute ploys to reexamine "new" evidence" as has become the custom in too many of these cases. But for an appeals process to be meaningful, there must be some form of material effort to ensure that the defendant, the victim (and victim's family), and the state as a whole receive justice.

Warren Hill is not a sympathetic figure. Warren Hill is a murderer. Warren Hill should not, and will not, be a person who is capable of returning to walking among us as a free member of society.

But Warren Hill is also a person who is entitled to the checks and balances that our system of justice affords more sympathetic and more capable members of society. To date, he has not received this. And unless there are changes before next Monday, he never will.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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