Despite the 2002 Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, which barred the mentally retarded (problematic as that terminology might be) from facing the death penalty, a man with an IQ of 70 was denied a death row appeal by SCOTUS this week.
Warren Hill, who faces the lethal injection in Georgia, has been deemed mentally retarded according to the prevailing legal standard by every doctor who has examined him -- including three physicians who had previously testified on the state's behalf. These witnesses have stated that their previous testimony against Hill's intellectual disability claims were based on insufficient evidence.
Based on Monday's SCOTUS ruling, Hill will no longer be able to appeal his death penalty sentence on the grounds of his mental retardation. Twice in two years, Hill has been within hours of execution before being granted a stay.
Hill was sentenced to death in 1991 for beating to death a fellow inmate (he was already serving a life sentence at the time for murdering his girlfriend). At the time of his death penalty sentencing, the jury was not given the option to choose life without parole instead of death.
Hill's attorney released the following statement Monday in response to SCOTUS' decision not to hear his client's appeal:
We are gravely disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court has failed to act to ensure the protection for persons with intellectual disability that was promised by the Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia.
It is the unanimous opinion of all doctors who have examined him that Mr. Hill is a person with mental retardation. However, Mr. Hill has been procedurally barred from proving his exemption from capital punishment, which is why he brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, in the hopes that the Court would ensure that the evidence of his intellectual disability would be heard.
It is tragic that our highest court has failed to enforce its own command that persons with mental retardation are categorically ineligible for the death penalty.