Wednesday, July 17, 2013

With a new execution date set, must the Supreme Court now take up the Hill case from Georgia? [feedly]

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With a new execution date set, must the Supreme Court now take up the Hill case from Georgia?
The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by this local news that "State officials have rescheduled the execution of Georgia death row inmate Warren Lee Hill for Friday," and this interesting commentary up at MSNBC by LawProf Stephen Vladick, which makes these points about the case:

Hill is not an innocent man. His capital sentence arises from his 1990 killing of a fellow prisoner while serving a life sentence for the murder of his girlfriend. In a country in which 32 states (and the federal government) still allow capital punishment, Hill might seem an unlikely candidate to become anything other than a statistic....

But if Hill's execution is eventually carried out, it will set a very dangerous precedent — even for those who are not generally opposed to capital punishment. Hill is, by all accounts, mentally retarded (the pejorative term still in vogue in legal analysis). The Supreme Court held more than a decade ago that the execution of such defendants is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment — because "there is a serious question as to whether either justification that [the Court has] recognized as a basis for the death penalty applies to mentally retarded offenders," and because "[m]entally retarded defendants may be less able to give meaningful assistance to their counsel and are typically poor witnesses, and their demeanor may create an unwarranted impression of lack of remorse for their crimes."...

The reasons why Hill is nevertheless facing lethal injection have been well-documented. Part of it is because Georgia makes it harder to prove mental retardation than any other state in the country (although Hill even meets Georgia's "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard). Part of it is because the government mental health professionals who examined Hill changed their mind — and their diagnosis — about Hill's mental capacity only after initially declaring him eligible for capital punishment. (They now agree that he should not be executed.)

Part of it is also because of the various procedural obstacles that Georgia law, federal law, and the Supreme Court have imposed in cases like Hill's, where defendants aren't able to raise a meritorious constitutional claim until after they've exhausted their direct appeal and their first round of post-conviction review. (In an amicus brief I co-authored, a group of habeas corpus experts explained why the Supreme Court nevertheless has the power to grant relief in Hill's case, should it desire to do so.)...

Hill's case is ultimately a test of a proposition far more fundamental than what is typically at stake in capital cases: Can the Constitution abide the execution of a prisoner, who the state's own experts agree is categorically ineligible for the death penalty, entirely because of procedural flaws in his claims? The Supreme Court has never held that the answer is yes, and has hinted rather strongly to the contrary in the context of "actual innocence" cases — including as recently as two months ago.

The time for hinting is running out — for Hill, for the Court, and for the country.