Executing the Retarded?

by Diane Dimond on July 24, 2012

Death By Lethal Injection

When I saw the headlines my stomach lurched. The State of Georgia has issued an execution warrant for a retarded man? Oh, Good Grief, I thought, has America come to this? Despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling more than a decade ago banning the execution of retarded citizens Georgia was going to go ahead and send Warren Lee Hill, Jr. to the death chamber anyway?

Multiple news stories told me plans to execute Mr. Hill were moving forward because he couldn’t prove he was mentally retarded, “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Why would the state of Georgia put that kind of caveat on retardation, I wondered. How could they possibly want to put to death a man who didn’t have the capacity to know right from wrong?

Latest: Execution Stayed for Non-Retardation Reasons

Then I did some research and remembered why it’s so important to look past the headlines. I came to realize that lawyers for two-time convicted murderer Warren Lee Hill may have been trying to game the system.

Look, anyone who reads this column regularly knows I struggle mightily with my opinion of the death penalty. I’m not for it – but then again if the criminal has committed multiple crimes (like a serial killer) or crimes against a child well … then … my anti-execution resolution gets shaky.

The saga of 52 year old Hill is a long one. It starts in 1986 when he murdered his 18 year old girlfriend by shooting her eleven times. He was convicted and sent to the Lee Correctional Institution to serve life in prison. There, he murdered again when he beat to death another inmate as he slept in his bed. According to the case file, “Hill removed a two-by-six (foot) board that served as a sink leg in the prison bathroom and forcefully beat the victim numerous times with the board about the head and chest as on-looking prisoners pleaded with him to stop.” The board was studded with nails and Hill, reportedly, mocked the man as he beat the life out of him.

Hill Murdered in Prison

The injuries sustained by victim Joseph Handspike were brutal. Several of his teeth were knocked out, his left eye was detached from the socket and he was unable to speak to guards for the blood pouring from his mouth and nose. He died in a hospital emergency room ninety minutes later from blunt force trauma.

It may be grisly to read such details but I think it is important to include in any discussion about clemency for criminals the damage they inflicted on their victims. That must be central to any conversation.

During Hill’s second murder trial, in 1991, his own attorney called a clinical psychologist who testified Hill had an IQ of 77 – (mild retardation is designated by an IQ between 59 and 69.) While below normal intelligence, Dr. William Dickinson testified, Hill was able to fully understand right from wrong and the ramifications of his actions. A high school friend called Hill, “bright, sharp and mature.” After graduating high school, evidence showed, Hill joined the Navy and rose to the rank of Seaman Second Class. The jury unanimously convicted Hill of malice murder and he received a death sentence.

Simmering Violence in Prison

In 1993, Hill’s attorney appealed his conviction to the Georgia Supreme Court and again did not claim mental retardation as a defense. The state’s high court rejected the appeal.

In 1996 – more than five years after the inmate’s murder – suddenly, lawyers for Hill claimed he could not be put to death because he was clinically retarded. They pegged his IQ at 70 which is still a point above those called, “mildly retarded.”

There has been a lot of legal back and forth in this case since that declaration of retardation but the bottom line now is: Warren Lee Hill is set to be executed at 7 pm on July 18th, 2012. This makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like the idea of state sanctioned killing but I certainly understand the case better now that I took the time to dig into it.

None of the battery of psychological tests Hill took before his lawyers professed he was mentally deficient showed any signs of retardation. Yet Hill’s attorney Brian Kammer maintains, “It is morally wrong to execute someone who has been found more likely than not to be mentally retarded.” He says his client has a mental capacity of a sixth grader.

The Death Bed

Georgia is no backward state when it comes to this issue. In 1988, Georgia became the first in the nation to abolish capital punishment for mentally retarded convicts – as long as they could prove their handicap beyond a reasonable doubt. And therein lies the rub for Warren Lee Hill. There is, on the very face of this case, a reasonable doubt about his claim.

But there is no doubt that Hill has murdered twice and his 18 year old girlfriend, Myra Wright, and inmate Joseph Handspike – ripped apart by bullets and a board – were never given the option of losing their life via a quiet lethal injection.

home  UPDATE:  The Georgia State Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Hill after his the state changed its 3-drug lethal cocktail to a one-drug death injection.  At this writing there has been no new execution date set.



Diane Dimond July 24, 2012 at 7:44 pm

Facebook Friend Dave ?mbriaco writes:

“Better to let a guilty man live than kill an innocent man. Better yet, better for the state not to kill anyone in the first place.”

Diane Dimond July 24, 2012 at 7:44 pm

Facebook Friend Darryl DuPont writes:

“I am so offended by that word, it is beyond not being politically correct.”

Diane Dimond July 24, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Facebook Friend Sheila Weller writes:

“There are people who richly deserve the death penalty: Charles Manson, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ted Bundy (check!), the Connecticut home invasion duo, Rodney Alcala, and certainly, once tried, the pretending(badly)-to-be-a-zombie Aurora murderer. Sorry, Dave Imbriaco, that’s too bleeding-heart for me, buddy.”

Diane Dimond July 24, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Facebook Friend Debbie Close writes:

“So the stay was issued only because of the WAY he was to be put to death?? Again, the criminal has more rights than the victim, ugh! “

Diane Dimond July 24, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Yes, Debbie,
The State’s highest court says it needs time to rule on the brand new way Georgia has decided to use for it’s lethal injections – one drug, instead of a cocktail of various drugs. ~ DD

Diane Dimond July 24, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Facebook Friend Paul R. Blakemore writes:

“Violence, no matter who perpetrates it, individual or state, only begets more violence.”

Diane Dimond July 24, 2012 at 7:52 pm

Facebook Friend Bill Voinovich writes:

“Stick the needle in him & get it overwith….Those scumbag lawyers will try ANYTHING…..
Sorry, but the guy knew what he was doing, so he GETS what he GETS…….”

Diane Dimond July 24, 2012 at 8:08 pm

ABQ Journal Reader Jim Patrick writes:

“Ms. Dimond,

As with all your articles, I enjoyed reading your OP-ED on Warren Lee Hill Jr. this morning. It’s refreshing to read an article that recognizes that sensitive issues are rarely successfully addressed from only one direction or opinion.

Small point of correction — you listed Hill’s ‘rank’ in the Navy as “seaman second class” … which is a rank that does not exist. The enlisted structure in the Navy runs from E-1 to E-10. Without listing each of the various paygrades and their verbal equivalents, an E-2 is a Seaman Apprentice, and an E-5 is a Petty Officer Second Class, either of which may or may not correspond to Hill’s actual paygrade.

I look forward to reading your future articles.

Jim Patrick
CAPT, USN (Ret); 33 years”

Diane Dimond July 24, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Capt. Patrick:

Here is the link from which I got that Navy rank information:


Since this was an official press release from the State of Georgia summarizing Mr. Hill’s case history I made the assumption that it was correct! You know what they say about what happens when you Ass-U-Me. My father was a Navy veteran and if he were still here he’d be shaking his head at my mistake! My apologies.

Thank you for your kind words about my columns. Its heartening to know people out there read my work.

Diane Dimond

Diane Dimond July 26, 2012 at 10:04 am

Facebook Friend Eric Vaughan writes:

“If you can pass a US Navy induction test, breaking news, you are not retarded. Just like with the responsibility of gun ownership, people like Warren Lee Hill set public opinion on mercy, regardless of how many innocent people are convicted of capital offences.”

Diane Dimond September 18, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Santa Barbara Noozhawk reader Nicholas writes:

I would say that he really skirts the line of mental retardation.

Personally, I do oppose Capital Punishment period. (Yes on Prop. 34, by the way.)

The problem is, IQ tests aren’t great for measuring anything. Not sanity, retardation, not even intelligence. And for matters of life and death such as these, well, faulty measures such as that aren’t really great to use.”

sal February 12, 2013 at 11:11 am

You would think they could come up with a better excuse than retarded. How very sad he can kill 2 people and now want to live.
He is a sick person and needs to go

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