Intellectually disabled man loses death row appeal in possibly contradictory ruling

Published: Saturday, April 27 2013 3:10 p.m. MDT

In jurisdictions where the death penalty is a sentencing option, hardly a week goes by without the federal appeals court denying a request for relief made by a death row inmate, wrote Andrew Cohen in a recent article for The Atlantic.

So when, on Monday, the judges of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied reprieve to Warren Lee Hill, a capital defendant in Georgia, no one paid much attention. But the decision in this case is highly unusual, according to Cohen.

Hill is, according to his lawyers, intellectually impaired and so under the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling "should be categorically excluded from execution.” The Supreme Court's reasoning is based on the idea that disabilities in the area of reasoning and judgment make it difficult for the impaired person to control their impulses. To execute such a person is, according to the court, a form of "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment.

By a vote of 2-1 the 11th Circuit refused to allow Hill's attorneys to present new evidence in support of their claim that their client is mentally disabled beyond a reasonable doubt and thus cannot be put to death under both Georgia law and the United States Supreme Court's ruling.

Analyzing this outcome, Cohen writes: "What makes this result so extraordinary — and so unnerving to many who follow capital cases — is the rationale employed by the court in turning down Hill's request. The 11th Circuit employed an argument that turns on its head the very essence of judicial review. Yes, there was relevant new evidence that Hill is mentally (disabled), the judges acknowledged, but that new evidence didn't create a new "claim." And since there was no new "claim," they concluded, Congress precluded them from allowing Hill's evidence to be evaluated on its merits."

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company