Warren Hill case re-engages debate on practicality of death penalty

The debate over the death penalty in the United States has long been part of the national dialogue. However, media attention over the controversial aspects of Georgia inmate Warren Lee Hill’s case has recently intensified the debate.

At 7 p.m. on Monday, Warren Lee Hill, a twice-convicted kil-ler, was set to be executed by lethal injection. Just one hour before the execution was to take place, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay of execution. This move came just as prominent public figures, such as former President Jimmy Carter, voiced their support for Hill’s case. The announcement from the U.S. Circuit Court comes as a surprise given that the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have already denied Hill’s appeal for clemency.

Hill was first convicted in 1986 for his girlfriend’s murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison. In 1990 Hill was placed on death row after beating his fellow inmate to death. It took 23 years of appeals and legal battles to reach the point where the state almost executed Hill. This struggle reminds us that the death penalty does not offer a quick solution to punishment but instead involves a drawn-out process that is both expensive for  taxpayers and psychologically draining for those involved.

The nature of this case is particularly interesting. Hill has been proven to have intellectual disabilities, and the Supreme Court considers execution of the mentally challenged unconstitutional, as decided in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002. However, the Court left the precise definition of what qualifies mental retardation up to the states. Georgia has the strictest standard of any state on this issue, requiring proof of retardation beyond a reasonable doubt.

Whether the death penalty is morally justified is another question. In Europe, there is little debate over the death penalty, as its abolition is a basic requirement for European Union membership. Beyond Europe, most developed countries — with the notable exception of Japan — have done away with the death penalty. Perhaps the American position presents a fundamental cultural difference or an archaic tradition in regard to mental illness in these cases and the death penalty in general. Someday, that will have to change.

A version of this appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 20 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]