The Death Penalty: Goal is justice, not vengeance
by The Savannah Morning News
March 05, 2013 12:40 AM | 1196 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Georgia is the only state in the nation that requires death penalty defendants to prove they are mentally disabled beyond a reasonable doubt to avoid execution.

In theory, this legal standard prevents stone-cold killers from faking disabilities to escape justice under Georgia law. That sounds logical.

But in practice, it can put the courts and mental health professionals in unenviable positions that a King Solomon couldn’t properly adjudicate.

That’s why state lawmakers should take a look at this law — and the ongoing case of Warren Lee Hill — and consider changing it.

Hill, 52, literally got a last-minute stay of execution Feb. 19 by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He was being prepared for lethal injection in Jackson when two of three federal judges said further review is needed of recent affidavits by doctors who changed their minds about Hill’s mental capacity.

There’s no doubt that Hill is a killer. In fact, he killed twice — once on the outside and again on the inside. ...

Hill’s lawyers have since argued that he is mentally disabled and shouldn’t be executed. If that’s true, then they’re right.

Georgia passed a law in 1988, two years before Hill killed the inmate, that prohibits the execution of mentally disabled death row inmates. That’s as it should be. Killing people who can’t understand the consequences of their actions doesn’t serve the cause of justice.

But is it true that Hill is disabled? What do the experts say? ...

The state has questioned the credibility of the doctors’ statements. They point out that these doctors haven’t seen him since 2000 and didn’t have significant new information in front of them during their recent review. Thus, how can they claim he’s mentally disabled now when he wasn’t disabled 13 years ago?

The root of the problem is that psychiatric diagnoses are subject to a degree of uncertainty. Existing Georgia law refuses to recognize this reality.

Legally speaking, this law stands up to scrutiny. State and federal courts have upheld it.

But practically speaking, it leaves no wiggle room for cases that seem borderline.

Lawmakers should consider changing the current law by requiring capital inmates to prove mental retardation by a preponderance of the evidence, as opposed to beyond a reasonable doubt, to avoid execution. That’s what at least 20 other states do.

Georgia shouldn’t execute anyone who has serious disabilities. The goal should be justice, not vengeance.
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