The planned execution on July 15, 2013, of Georgia prisoner Warren Hill –who has been diagnosed as ‘mentally disabled’- is a gross violation of U.S. federal laws and specifically of the 8th amendment that reads, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.’ The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that criminal sentences that are inhuman, outrageous, or shocking to the social conscience are cruel and unusual.
It is based on a 2002 Supreme Court ruling (Atkins v Virginia) that outlawed the death penalty for prisoners considered mentally disabled. That ruling had left a small gap according to which death penalty states were left to define the legal standard under which ‘mental retardation’ also known as ‘intellectual disability’ is defined.
Warren Hill was sentenced for execution after killing a fellow prisoner while he was serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend in 1990. Hill is scheduled to be killed on Monday in his second appointment with the death chamber in five months. Last February, he came within 30 minutes of execution before that procedure was stayed. Hill’s lawyer has again demanded a stay in the procedure.
Warren Hill has been found to meet the definition of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ since all nine medical experts who have examined him over the years agreed on his mental health status – he has an IQ score of 70 corresponding to those now called ‘intellectually disabled’ or ‘intellectually challenged.’
According to Amnesty International, executing the mentally ill –those who don’t understand the reasons for their punishment- violates the U.S. Constitution (Ford v. Wainwright, 1986). In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the common law rule that the “insane” cannot be executed. In a 1986 opinion by Justice Thurgood Marshall, he reasoned that executing the mentally retarded didn’t serve any punitive goals and that Florida’s procedures for determining competency to stand trial were inadequate.
There has been widespread international criticism of the death penalty for the gravely mentally ill. In 1997, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions said that, “Governments that continue to use the death penalty with respect to minors and the mentally ill are particularly called upon to bring their domestic legislation into conformity with international legal standards.”
In 2000, the UN Commission on Human Rights urged all states that maintain the death penalty “not to impose it on a person suffering from any form of mental disorder; not to execute any such person.”
Since 1983, over 60 people with mental illness or retardation have been executed in the United States. The American Bar Association passed a 2006 resolution calling for the exemption of those with serious mental illness from imposition and execution of the death penalty. The National Association of Mental Health estimates that five to ten percent of those on death row have serious mental illness.
Among those asking for a stay in Hill’s execution are former president Jimmy Carter, the Council of Europe, the president of the American Bar Association, a group of mental disability experts, and several law professors and human rights organizations.
Specifically on this case, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated that “the death penalty violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Executing this indisputably intellectually disabled man would not only violate our Constitution, but it would be cruel and unjust beyond reason.”
Furthermore, states the ACLU, “we hold that the state should not arrogate unto itself the right to kill human beings – especially when it kills with premeditation and ceremony, in the name of the law or in the name of its people, or when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion.”
According to Amnesty International, “Virtually every country in the world prohibits the execution of people with mental illness.” Executing a mentally retarded person is a barbaric practice that has no place in a civilized society.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.