How Do I Explain to my Six Year-Old Son What Kind of a Society Plans to Execute an Intellectually Disabled Man? [UPDATED]

Breaking Update, 2:30pm, February 14th: State doctors reversed an earlier finding and officially declared today that Warren Hill has mild mental retardation, placing Mr. Hill in the category of citizens protected from capital punishment by the 2002 United States Supreme Court decision Atkins v. Virginia. Mr. Hill's execution, scheduled for February 19th, must be stayed.

Secular and religious leaders from Vice President Humphrey to Mahatma Gandhi have taught that the character of society is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members. The words echo the teaching of Jesus and seem fitting to reflect on today as many Christians embark on the Lenten season of fasting, repentance, and spiritual discipline.

When I think about Georgia's scheduled execution of Warren Lee Hill, this principle haunts me. Hill is intellectually disabled (formerly called mentally retarded), and so clearly among society's weakest. The State of Georgia plans to execute him on February 19th. How do I explain to my six year-old son what kind of a society plans to execute an intellectually disabled man?

It's certainly not the society envisioned by the precedents of the United States Supreme Court. Since its 2002 landmark decision in Atkins v. Virginia, the Court has barred the execution of the intellectually disabled as cruel and unusual punishment. The American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) generally defines intellectual disability as significantly sub-average intellectual functioning (an IQ of approximately 70 or below, accounting for any science-based scoring adjustments), with an onset before age 18, and accompanying limitations in two or more "adaptive skill" areas such as communication, self-care, home-living, interpersonal skills, academic skills, or the use of community resources. Our high court looked to this definition in its Aktins decision.

As the AAIDD and the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities and other experts have found, Hill squarely meets this definition. He has since his school days, when standardized tests placed him in the bottom 2-3% of his peers and his teachers clearly recognized his disability. A Georgia trial court hearing all of this evidence agreed that Hill meets the standard. The family of Hill's victims see it, and have agreed he should be sentenced to life in prison without release, not execution.

So what gives? If the court, the victims' family, and Hill's childhood teachers all say that Hill is intellectually disabled, then how can he be executed? The answer is a technicality, a glitch, a quirk in Georgia law. Georgia stands alone among death-penalty states in requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt of intellectual disability before barring execution. The Georgia judge found beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill had an IQ of 70 or below, but only by a "preponderance of the evidence" that he suffers adaptive limitations and that he began suffering his disability before the age of 18. A "preponderance of the evidence" is lawyer-speak for more likely than not. In other words, Georgia says to Hill, we're pretty sure you're intellectually disabled, but we find you don't meet our very high standard of proof.

Society shows its best self when it takes care of its disabled, makes available needed services, allows for equal education and other opportunities. And of course we don't require the disabled to prove their disability beyond a reasonable doubt -- the highest standard of proof known to law (designed, as we have previously explained, for a completely different purpose). We provide these services and opportunities without anything like this kind of scrutiny because it's the right thing to do. It's also the right thing to do to stop this execution from proceeding on a technicality. Hill's pending petition to the U.S. Supreme Court asks the Court to stop the execution, and in turn to save us from our worst selves. Let's hope they do.

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Anonymous

I personally think it is more inhumane to lock an intellectually disabled person in a concrete box for the rest of their lives.

Anonymous

Again this is america. What did this man do? Some of us have no tvs. This is one of gods sons. It isn't his fault that he is mentally challenged and he should not be put to death,but give him the help that he needs and requiers. Life in prison would be better with the proper doctor and special attention that he will need. The man is inocent!,,!!

Elinor Dashwood

"Secular and religious leaders from Vice President Humphrey to Mahatma Gandhi have taught that the character of society is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members."

Its weakest members, such as unborn children with Downs Syndrome. Hypocritical much?

Elinor Dashwood

I'm wondering why my comment pointing out that preborn children who have 21-trisomy are certainly amoung our society'e "weakest member" did not post.

Samuel

I tell my children that the death penalty is a form of Satanism, it is a form of human sacrifice to Satan and a form of Satan worship, and all those involved in carrying it out are Satanists. I tell my children that death penalty supporters are victims of demonic possession, and we should pray that the demons leave them. I tell my children that a government which has the death penalty is a government under Satan's power, and deriving its authority from Satan - and any government under Satan is totally illegitimate, and not worthy of any respect, but only of hatred. Laws which provide for the death penalty are Satanic laws, that Satan inspired, and which demonically-possessed Satanist legislators enact, and demonically-possessed Satanist judges and officials enforce. Any one who obeys the devil's laws belongs to the devil. Death penalty supporters go to hell when they die. If they want to go the heaven, they have to reject the demons which dwell inside them, which means to reject the death penalty.

mMmMm

Anonymous #2 I think that sometimes the help wont be enough and we'll be putting the population around him in danger. I just read the last paragraph and YOU ARE AN IDIOT you hear I-D-I-O-T God himself has stated in the bible Genesis 6-9 that the spiller of mans blood shall be sent into the hands of the avenger of blood. You just ticked me off

Anonymous

It ALSO says in the Bible that it's an abomination for man to lie with man the way he does a woman but it says in THE SAME EXACT BOOK as where you can find THAT little gem to "not eat leavened bread," "not eat pork," "not eat shellfish," (which is also an abomination, probably b/c nobody understood an anaphylactic reaction in Biblical times as our Senior paramedic suggested) and to "sell your daughter to the highest bidder in marriage." It also asks that people "not let a sorcerer live."
And out of ALL that information, why in the world is that ONE verse the ONLY one people abide by with their lives while flagrantly ignoring all the ones they apparently just don't feel like following?

I agree with Capital Punishment but not for a mentally retarded or otherwise mentally challenged person. For one thing, it's never been on the list of "accepted criteria, by which you can say it's 'not cruel and unusual punishment' to consider the person for the death penalty."
I knew a Capital Offenses Attorney and, although he didn't say those words exactly, he certainly implied them when he said "there has to be extenuating circumstances to the murder for a person to even qualify for consideration."
Mental and intellectual disabilities in the prisoner was NOT one of them.
Neither was something as inane as a person saying "black people are more likely to commit crimes," but that's why another person ended up on death row.
And it's why I signed the petition against having him there, b/c I'm not INTO people being that arbitrary about someone's death. If they can't follow the rules of it, fine; but I'm not helping them get the job done on that basis.

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