The executions of two Georgia death row inmates were halted temporarily on Tuesday, in one case only 20 minutes before the inmate was set to be lethally injected.
Warren Lee Hill and Andrew Cook were both granted temporary reprieves on their executions this week, in Hill’s case based on a claim of “mental retardation” that had previously been dismissed, the Atlantic reported.
Hill was given the death sentence in 1990, after being found guilty of killing a fellow inmate in the middle of the night with a nail-studded board. Hill had been serving a life sentence at the time for murdering his girlfriend Myra Wright.
In a 2-1 decision, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued Hill a stay on the grounds that more review of doctors’ statements was needed. The last-minute reprieve was granted less than a week after Hill’s lawyers announced a crucial turning point in the case: Three of the medical experts who testified in 2000 that Hill was not mentally disabled had reversed their opinions.
But Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that Hill, at least, likely faces a long legal battle ahead of him. "If this were easy, it would have been picked off months ago and not at 6:30 [Tuesday] night," Dieter said. "The fact that it was so late, I think, means that it's going to be a hard fight. But the 11th Circuit said at least there's some way that he could still prevail."
According to the Seattle Times, the state questioned the reliability of the doctors’ opinions, arguing that they hadn’t met with Hill face to face for more than 13 years. They also cited relatives’ pretrial descriptions of Hill as “the leader of the family” and a “father figure,” along with his career in the Navy, where he received promotions.
One of the doctors, Dr. Thomas H. Sachy, claimed that he had been young and inexperienced at the time that he evaluated Hill and that consequently his “rushed” assessment had been “in error.” In an affidavit, Sachy wrote, “In my opinion today, within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, Mr. Hill has significantly subaverage intellectual functioning with an IQ of approximately 70,” thus meeting “the criteria for mild mental retardation.”
Dr. Donald Harris, another doctor who reviewed Hill’s case, concurred with Sachy’s view, adding that his own testimony had relied heavily on Sachy’s medical assessment. In his affidavit, Harris claims that he was not given sufficient time to review “absolutely everything” in Hill’s records and that he was influenced by Hill’s career in the Navy.
“Given my lack of experience with the military, I was skeptical that an individual with mild mental retardation could function adequately, even for a time, in the low enlisted ranks of the Navy,” Harris wrote. “This was influential in my thinking as I evaluated Mr. Hill.”
"In other words, all of the experts -- both the state's and the petitioner's -- now appear to be in agreement that Hill is, in fact, mentally retarded," the federal judges in the majority wrote.
Cook’s reprieve was also last-minute given that he was scheduled to be executed on Thursday. Attorneys for both inmates argued against the state’s use of pentobarbital in lethal injections without a prescription before the Court of Appeals, but both rulings were challenged.