'No Defendant Has Ever Met This Burden': Inside Georgia's Death Sentence Ruling
"Georgia's uniquely high and onerous burden means that people with intellectual disability will be executed," said Brian Stull, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project.
By Cedra Mayfield | June 01, 2021 at 04:11 PM
It's not a matter of appealing his guilt. It's been agreed Rodney Renia Young is guilty of traveling across state lines to kill his former girlfriend's son in 2008.
Whether he should die for his actions, however, has birthed a war between the American Civil Liberties Union and the courts, as battles to prove Young's intellectual disability—and have it honored by the Georgia judicial system with a death penalty exemption—continue.
Young's latest battle, an appeal before the Supreme Court of Georgia, ended with the court upholding his death sentence, finding in Young v. State that Young failed to prove his intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt.
"We are not called upon here to make a pronouncement on the wisdom of Georgia's burden of proof from a policy perspective, and to do so would be beyond this court's constitutional power," Supreme Court of Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton wrote in a plurality opinion. "Instead, we are called upon to apply the Georgia Constitution and the United States Constitution."
It's a Catch-22 the ACLU attributed to the state's interpretation of the 2002 United States Supreme Court decision in Atkins v. Virginia. In it, the nation's highest court granted states discretion in developing "appropriate ways" to enforce the constitutional restriction on executing intellectually disabled individuals, after determining that doing so violated the U.S. Constitution.
"No defendant has ever met this burden and successfully proven their intellectual disability," said Brian Stull, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project. "Georgia's uniquely high and onerous burden means that people with intellectual disability will be executed, just as Warren Hill was executed in 2015, despite every expert who interviewed him affirming his intellectual disability."
Across the aisle, Alcovy Circuit District Attorney Randal McGinley helped represent the state.
"While it is the decision of Young and his attorneys as to whether they seek review by the Supreme Court of the United States, I would not be surprised if a petition for cert is filed asking that court to weigh in on the legal issue of the burden of proof regarding intellectual disability," McGinley said. "However, all three opinions (the plurality, concurrence, and dissent) make it clear that the trials followed precedent from both the Supreme Courts of Georgia and the United States on this issue."
'I Would Obediently Accept'
Supreme Court of Georgia Presiding Justice David E. Nahmias welcomed the case escalation.
In his special concurrence, Nahmias said, "Of course I (and the majority of this court) could be wrong. Young is welcome to seek certiorari from the United States Supreme Court to have that Court tell us that we are wrong. I would obediently accept and forthrightly apply such a decision."
Nahmias cited that in the more than 30 years since the statute used to handle such cases had been enacted, developments in the science of intellectual disability had occurred. He welcomed Young and those advocating on his behalf to "try to persuade the people of Georgia, through their elected representatives to revisit" the statute.
"If the General Assembly takes a further humane step with regard to criminal defendants who are potentially intellectually disabled, I would embrace that change," Nahmias wrote. "In the meantime, however, I see no compelling reason for this court to overrule our well-established precedent on this issue."
Rather than deter, the court's split decision further motivated the ACLU's quest to fight for Young's exemption from the death penalty.
"[The] decision violates the reasoning of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions forbidding states from upholding procedures that create unacceptable risks of executing persons with intellectual disability," Stull said.
Justice Charles Bethel agreed, standing alone in his dissent.
Bethel highlighted Stripling v. State in 2011 and Head v. Hill in 2003.
In these decisions, the Supreme Court of Georgia rejected arguments that the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard is unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Atkins, because it lacked state instructions to apply any particular standard of proof to intellectual disability claims.
Bethel said Young's suggestion that subsequent decisions of the high court "cast doubt" on those earlier decisions, compelling a different conclusion.
"The question before us, then, is whether Georgia's requirement that a defendant prove his or her own intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt creates 'an unacceptable risk that an intellectually disabled person will be executed,'" Bethel's dissent said. "Here, the existence of such a risk seems plain."
Kevin S. McGrew, PhD
Educational & School Psychologist
Institute for Applied Psychometrics (IAP)