It is unconstitutional to execute the mentally disabled. Warren Hill was almost certainly mentally disabled, but "almost certainly" was not good enough for the State of Georgia. So on Tuesday night, Georgia executed Hill for murdering his cellmate in 1990. The Supreme Court denied Hill’s petition to hear his case and refused to halt his execution, after a lengthy and hard-fought appeals process, with only Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor voting for a stay.
All seven medical experts who examined Hill—including the three experts appointed by the state—found him to be intellectually disabled. Hill’s lawyers claimed their client had “the emotional and cognitive ability of a young boy” and that his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment. The American Bar Association, the ACLU, the Georgia chapter of the NAACP, the Vatican, the European Union, and mental-health organizations sided with Hill during his four-year legal battle. Even the family of Hill’s victim and some jurors from his trial opposed his execution.
“This execution is an abomination,” Brian Kammer, Hill’s attorney, said in a statement. “Like the execution of Jerome Bowden in 1986, the memory of Mr. Hill’s illegal execution will live on as a moral stain on the people of this State and on the courts that allowed this to happen.”
As far back as medieval England, courts recognized exemptions for people who suffered from disabilities or mental illness. They could not be charged with crimes, let alone be executed for them. Lord Blackstone, whose writings on the English common law tradition influenced the Founding Fathers, argued that their diminished mental capacity prevented them from adequately defending themselves in court. “In criminal cases therefore,” he wrote in the language of his time, “idiots and lunatics are not chargeable for their own acts, if committed when under these incapacities: no, not even for treason itself.” The Supreme Court quoted Blackstone when it forbade executions of the insane in 1986; the Court later banned executions of the intellectually disabled in the 2002 case Atkins v. Virginia.