Executing the Mentally Retarded: The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia

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The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have an opportunity to reinforce their historic ruling banning capital punishment for criminals with low IQs. They should take it.

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The story of Warren Lee Hill, which is poised to reach its apex next week, is really the story of how vast the gulf is sometimes between the lofty pronouncements of the United States Supreme Court and the manner in which lesser functionaries of law and justice implement the letter and the spirit of those pronouncements. For in the case of Warren Lee Hill, we see nothing less than the state-sanctioned defiance of a recent Supreme Court mandate: Thou shalt not execute the mentally retarded.

Hill is a capital inmate in Georgia, long ago convicted of murder, who is scheduled to be executed next Tuesday. This is happening, at least for now, because Georgia officials have come up with a way to satisfy themselves that Hill is not mentally retarded. They have accomplished this psychological miracle by enforcing a restrictive state law which makes it virtually impossible for any capital defendant to ever prove his or her mental retardation. And they say they are entitled to apply this law because the Supreme Court said so.

Georgia is pressing ahead with the execution even though Hill's lawyers have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that, with an IQ of 70, he has "significantly subaverage intellectual functioning." The state is pressing ahead because Hill's lawyers were only able to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Hill's mental retardation caused "impairments in adaptive behavior which manifested during the developmental period." Not good enough, say Georgia officials. The second part of the test also must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

This is in conflict with the Supreme Court's 2002 pronouncement, in a case styled Atkins v. Virginia, that the execution of mentally retarded murderers violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment." Aware of the growing national consensus against such executions, and mindful of the rule that the Supreme Court must by obeyed, the state has gotten around the problem simply by claiming that Hill is not mentally retarded.

It's one thing to require the state to prove the elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. It's another to require a mentally retarded individual to save his own life by applying such a standard.

Filing their briefs, Hill's lawyers late last week asked the Supreme Court justices to spare their client and, in so doing, to fortify their ruling in Atkins with blunt new language that requires officials in states like Georgia to give meaningful effect to the new constitutional prohibition. The justices should rush to embrace this desperate request. A right without a remedy is no right at all. And what Georgia -- and other states -- have done since Atkins is deny men like Hill (and Marvin Wilson, executed last summer in Texas despite an IQ of 61) the remedy they deserve.

Atkins v. Virginia

The Supreme Court did something in Atkins v. Virginia which it does too often in close cases -- which, in fact, officials throughout the ages have done too often: It came up with a neat compromise that left for a future day the true ramifications of its choice. While it announced a ban against the execution of the mentally retarded, at the very same time, it gave recalcitrant states a map to getting around the ban. The broad stroke was widely hailed as a great victory for human rights, but the details doomed men like Marvin Wilson -- and perhaps Warren Lee Hill as well.

The justices who signed onto the majority ruling in the case were acutely aware in Atkins that, by leaving the key question to the states, they would enable officials in some jurisdictions to continue to execute mentally retarded defendants whom other states would spare. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote:

To the extent there is serious disagreement about the execution of mentally retarded offenders it is in determining which offenders are in fact retarded. In this case, for instance, the Commonwealth of Virginia disputes that Atkins suffers from mental retardation. Not all people who claim to be mentally retarded will be so impaired as to fall within the range of mentally retarded offenders about whom there is a national consensus. As was our approach in Ford v. Wainwright, with regard to insanity, "we leave to the State[s] the task of developing ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon its execution of sentences."

In other words, the court in Atkins was ready to extend full Eighth Amendment protection in "easy" cases of mental retardation, but not in "hard" cases where there might be "serious disagreement" between experts about the level of retardation. This cop-out was part of the ruling, even as the court acknowledged that "some characteristics of mental retardation undermine the strength of the procedural protections that our capital jurisprudence steadfastly guards." Justice Stevens continued in this vein:

Mentally retarded persons frequently know the difference between right and wrong and are competent to stand trial. Because of their impairments, however, by definition they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand the reactions of others.

Despite its grand constitutional claim, Atkins allowed states to continue to manipulate the results of "close" capital cases of mental retardation by trotting out their medical experts and their psychiatrists, in order to conclude that the condemned was not so mentally retarded as to fall within the protections of the Eighth Amendment. This scenario resulted last year in the shocking execution of a Texas man "who could not handle money or navigate a phone book, a man who sucked his thumb and could not always tell the difference between left and right, a man who, as a child, could not match his socks, tie his shoes or button his clothes."

To its eternal shame, placing federalism above core protections in the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court turned its back on Marvin Wilson, that man in Texas. It should not turn its back on Warren Hill. By requiring him to prove his mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt, and by dismissing the substantial proof of retardation he did establish, Georgia took cynical advantage of the court's deference in Atkins. The Supreme Court should put to right this ongoing injustice. It should no longer countenance such continuing disrespect.

Hill v. Humphrey

Georgia argues in this case that the Supreme Court should just leave it alone. It argues that what its officials have done in the Hill case -- the many hearings, the many layers of appellate review, the culling of experts on the topic of Hill's mental status -- is precisely the sort of due process the justices in Atkins intended for them to undertake. Georgia's relevant mental evaluation standards are quite liberal, the state lawyers argue, especially in comparison with those of other states. "Georgia's burden of proof as to claims of mental retardation is not unconstitutional," the state bluntly told the court.

And then Georgia reminded the justices of the oversight scenario they had purposefully chosen to avoid in Atkins: creating a national constitutional rule that would protect individual defendants, but that would also run into the types of federalism concerns that so disturb this Supreme Court. Even if the court "chooses to retract that portion of Atkins leaving the task of developing procedures to the States," the state lawyers wrote, "this Court will be in the position of setting out detailed guidelines to ensure what it deems constitutional is met as there are many variables in each state's statute."

Hill's lawyers aren't asking the Supreme Court to force Georgia to roll over. They instead are asking the justices to issue a ruling that ensures that no state may require a capital defendant to prove his or her mental retardation using the most onerous "reasonable doubt" standard. The "substantive protection" the court promised in Atkins, the defense argues, is "eviscerated" by a uniquely harsh state law with such a requirement. "Georgia stands alone among American jurisdictions," Hill's lawyers write, "in denying the protection of Atkins v. Virginia to capital defendants who probably have mental retardation in fact."

The heart of their case -- and perhaps the best argument against the cruelty of the Georgia statute -- is that the nature of these psychological cases makes it easy for a prosecutor to generate "reasonable doubt" of mental retardation simply by offering up an expert who will cast that doubt. "Because of the detail and complexity of the information and expert judgments that enter into the diagnostic process," Hill's lawyers remind the court, "a prosecutor can almost always hope to fashion some argument for reasonable doubt if the issue goes to trial -- particularly in the context of an ugly crime."

It's one thing to require the state to prove the elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. It's another thing to require a mentally retarded individual to bear the burden of saving his own life by such a standard. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the only former trial judge on the court, surely will appreciate that distinction. Whether Justice Anthony Kennedy does as well will likely determine Hill's fate. It was Justice Kennedy who voted for the Atkins ban and who also wrote the opinion in the more recent ban on the execution of juvenile murderers. He's the critical fifth vote Hill would need, both to stay the execution and to extend the promise of Atkins.

The problem isn't going to solve itself. And the Supreme Court is the only means of help. The Georgia Supreme Court, Hill's lawyers assert, "has already made its intentions clear: it will not disturb the reasonable doubt standard in mental retardation cases 'unless the Supreme Court or the United States so requires at some future date.'"

That day is here. If it is not Hill it will be another man, in another state, who is mentally retarded but unable to prove so to the satisfaction of a state judge because of some arbitrary legal standard. There is no standing still on Atkins. The court must either go forward or go back. And it must do so quickly.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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