Mental Disability Experts File Brief at SCOTUS in Support of GA Death Row Prisoner Warren Hill

posted Jun 14, 2013, 12:36 PM by GFADP staff

Yesterday, six leading clinicians and scholars in the field of mental disability and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) filed an amicus brief, attached, with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Warren Hill's Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. The amicus brief urges the Court to ensure that new testimony will be considered from three government experts who previously testified that Mr. Hill, a Georgia death row prisoner with an undisputed I.Q. of 70, did not have mental retardation. After additional review of the case, the doctors have now submitted sworn affidavits that they were previously incorrect, and the diagnosis of mental retardation is now unanimous among all the experts who have examined Mr. Hill.

As mental disability professionals, the individuals who are signatories to the amicus brief have performed mental evaluations and diagnostic reports for courts on a variety of legal issues, but primarily evaluations of capital defendants in cases involving Atkins v. Virginia, the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case prohibiting the execution of defendants with mental retardation. The signatories to the amicus brief have also published many of the leading scholarly articles on the subject. 

At Mr. Hill's 2000 state habeas proceedings, four experts testified that Mr. Hill satisfied all of the elements of the clinical definition and diagnosed him as having mental retardation, and three government experts testified that he did not meet the definition of the diagnosis, expressing that he did not have significant deficits in adaptive behavior and that they suspected he was malingering. As the amicus brief states, “In the case at bar, all three of the government’s expert witnesses have determined, correctly, that they previously relied on insufficient facts, that their methodology of diagnosis was unsound, and that, as a result, they had reached an incorrect conclusion. A sentence of death cannot rest on such a flawed foundation.” (p. 9)  

Noting the special role of expert testimony in cases like Mr. Hill's, the brief states, "Clinicians in the field of mental disability are particularly crucial in death penalty cases involving mental retardation, and the courts must be able to rely on the correctness and accuracy of the conclusions reached by expert witnesses" (p. 6). The brief goes on to note that "the three government witnesses have acknowledged that their earlier diagnostic conclusions were wrong because of their misunderstanding about the attributes of people with mental retardation and because of subsequent advances in the scientific understanding about intellectual disability. Their revised opinions that Mr. Hill has mental retardation are consistent with the clinical definition and the current scientific understanding in the area of intellectual disability, particularly in the areas of stereotyping about mental retardation and the potential for malingering. As clinicians in the field of mental disabilities, amici are acutely conscious of the stakes in capital cases, and believe that a death sentence cannot rest upon what are now acknowledged to be diagnostic errors." (p.6-7) 

Mr. Hill has twice been scheduled for execution, most recently in February of this year when the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals stayed the execution at the eleventh hour. On April 23, an Eleventh Circuit panel in a 2-1 vote denied Mr. Hill's habeas petition, finding that he did not meet the restrictive standards of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and that the Court was therefore barred from considering the evidence of Mr. Hill's mental retardation.

Georgia courts have repeatedly found that Mr. Hill is mentally retarded. In 2002, a Georgia state court judge found Mr. Hill’s IQ to be approximately 70 beyond a reasonable doubt and to fulfill the overall criteria for mental retardation by a preponderance of the evidence. In 2012, the state court judge reaffirmed that Mr. Hill is a person with mental retardation, but found he did not meet Georgia's uniquely strict  "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard – the heaviest burden of proof in the nation for a defendant to prove he has mental retardation. 

On May 23, attorneys for Mr. Hill filed a Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus at the U.S. Supreme Court based on the new doctor affidavits. The petition asks the Court to remand the case to federal district court for a hearing on the compelling evidence demonstrating that Mr. Hill is mentally retarded and ineligible for the death penalty. The petition for Original Writ states

“This case presents the extraordinary circumstance that each and every mental health expert the State of Georgia presented in state habeas proceedings to rebut Mr. Hill’s substantial proof of mental retardation has since repudiated his initial finding … and now concludes that Mr. Hill is, in fact, mildly mentally retarded.” (p.2) “Every court to which Mr. Hill has petitioned in an effort to present this new and compelling evidence has denied him the opportunity to prove the merits of his claim. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole has likewise refused to reopen proceedings in light of this evidence. This Court, accordingly, is Mr. Hill’s last and only hope to avoid an execution that is flat-out prohibited by the Eighth amendment.” (p.12) 

In a dissent to the Eleventh Circuit's ruling, Judge Rosemary Barkett condemned Georgia's standard of proof, stating: "The idea that courts are not permitted to acknowledge that a mistake has been made which would bar an execution is quite incredible for a country that not only prides itself on having the quintessential system of justice but attempts to export it to the world as a model of fairness.... [The federal habeas statute] should not be construed to require the unconstitutional execution of a mentally retarded offender who, by presenting evidence that virtually guarantees that he can establish his mental retardation, is able to satisfy even the preposterous burden of proof Georgia demands.""

 Mr. Hill's case is the subject of diverse and extensive support, including from numerous mental health and disability groups. Margaret Nygren, the Executive Director and CEO of the AAIDD and Eric Jacobsen, Executive Director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities have both written on the urgent need to stop this execution. Read Dr. Nygren’s piece here and Mr. Jacobsen’s piece here. The affidavits of the doctors who have revised their diagnoses are here: HarrisSachyCarter.

Notably, the family of the victim does not wish to see Mr. Hill executed, specifically citing his mental retardation. In addition, President Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn Carter have called for a commutation of Mr. Hill's death sentence to life without parole. Several jurors who sat on Mr. Hill's original jury have also stated under oath that they believe that life without parole is the appropriate sentence in this case. It was not offered to them as an option at trial in 1991.

GFADP staff,
Jun 14, 2013, 12:36 PM