Should mentally disabled inmates be executed?

Those considered mentally disabled deserve to be safe from executions that they cannot comprehend. 

With less than an hour until his scheduled execution, convicted killer Warren Lee Hill was granted a stay on Tuesday by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Ga. In its statement, the court said the stay was necessary to review the newly submitted affidavits testifying to the mental capacity of Hill, who allegedly holds an IQ of 70, according to The Guardian.

Christina Ellis | Daily Trojan

Christina Ellis | Daily Trojan

An IQ of 70 is considered the base for mental disability, and it’s clear the government was correct in staying the execution.

There are few less deserving of execution than the mentally disabled. In 2002’s landmark case Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally disabled was a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. But under the law in Georgia, the state in which Hill is incarcerated, the state could execute anyone unless they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt to be mentally disabled; Hill had not been able to do so.

But Hill, with an IQ of 70 and affidavits from three doctors testifying to his lack of mental capacity, certainly seems to meet the standards for mentally disabled under both Georgia and federal law. It’s also important to mention that Georgia is the only state with such a strict policy: Other states, for example, require only a “preponderance of the evidence,” making it more difficult to execute a mentally disabled criminal. By saying that one’s mental disability must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it only makes it more difficult for those who need help to receive it.

And though some might see a criminal as simply a criminal, it’s important to dive deeper into the situation. The mentally disabled are citizens who need help, and prisoners with mental disabilities particularly need reform, not punishment; the goal of the Department of Corrections, after all, is to provide corrections and reduce recidivism rates in America. The context of Hill’s case is particularly important: His mother and grandfather allegedly beat a young Hill in the head, often with a cast-iron lamp. Having never received proper assistance for his mental disability, Hill should now be given special consideration in his incarceration and should not be executed.

This case also provides interesting fuel for the argument that the death penalty should be reformed or abolished. Though the idea behind capital punishment is that some criminals are just too vile to be reformed, the same result could be  — and currently is — reached with life imprisonment. If prisoners are truly beyond reform, then locking them away in maximum-security facilities with no chance of release is as protective to the American public as execution.

Furthermore, a death sentence costs significantly less than life imprisonment. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, death penalties — from trial to incarceration to appeals — routinely cost millions of dollars. The cost of imprisoning a death row inmate alone costs $90,000 more than a non-capital inmate. According to Amnesty International, if California stopped executing prisoners, the costs of the California justice system would drop from $137 million per year to just $11.5 million.

The money saved every year from life imprisonment could be put to good use reforming the corrections system in the United States. A better corrections system means fewer recidivists, fewer crimes and safer streets. The money could also be put to good use increasing the level of care available for people with mental disabilities. Hopefully it is not too late for Hill or for millions of Americans in the years to come.

Dan Morgan-Russell is a freshman majoring in international relations.


Giving special preference to certain inmates will only encourage others to manipulate the system unfairly. 

Warren Lee Hill, a twice-convicted killer who has been on death row since 1991 for his crimes, was granted a stay of his execution scheduled for this past Tuesday. Hill, 52, was deemed mentally disabled and, thus, unaccountable for his crimes after a panel of experts convened and agreed that the criminal’s IQ test result qualified as mentally retarded in terms of legal declaration. Thus, he has been given an indefinite stay of execution and a promise of further review for his case.

Even though his IQ has been found lacking, Hill has proven himself able to conform to the daily rigors of both free society and prison. His death sentence, after all, was given only after he had beaten his cellmate Joseph Handspike to death in his sleep with a board full of nails in 1990. He had landed himself a life sentence prior to this incident by shooting his girlfriend Myra Wright 11 times in 1985.

Even if Hill is legitimately mentally disabled, he has shown that he is capable of premeditated murder and is much too dangerous to be a part of any society. Execution is the only recourse that is logical, as his stay of execution does nothing more than provide him more possible opportunities to repeat his crimes and waste the state’s time and funds to keep the public safe from him.

Some might argue that the stay is justifiable if he is, indeed, mentally handicapped and that he ought to be put into a program intended to promote reformation in felons. However, Hill has murdered not once, but twice, and is statistically very likely to do so again if given the opportunity. His past crimes are merit enough to keep him from ever rejoining the public, unstable as he is.

Though the State of Georgia is firmly against the idea of executing those whose mentally faculties are either underdeveloped or damaged, they need to make allowances for cases in which the one who is being tried is a legitimate menace to society. As it is, he is draining public resources and living comfortably under the guise of a simpleton in a malleable justice system.

The last-ditch effort to preserve the life of this murderer was to assert that he is not in full control of his mental faculties. It is incredibly suspicious that after two full trials for murder, the defense that he is mentally disabled is only barely coming out. This defense is obviously a cunning manipulation of the public forum as, again, Georgia is firmly prohibitive against the execution of those who are mentally incapable, and the maneuver is quickly garnering support from people who are unwilling to let a man with a lower IQ take responsibility for his actions.

Hill and his attorney are playing the system to their own tune, and the system proving itself to be unbelievably willing to dance. This not only reflects negatively on mentally disabled people — stories with much media coverage like this can cause people not familiar with the challenges of mental disability to falsely assume that mentally disabled Americans are violent. This also trivializes the very real struggles of disabled people because the defense of mental disability, a legitimate one, was offered so late in the trial process.

The evidence itself is suspect. The testimony of his sister, Peggy Hill, implying that their upbringing caused Hill brain damage, is also certainly not unbiased, and therefore unreliable as well. There is no other evidence beside word-of-mouth to confirm her story that physical abuse caused him health problems and could easily be fabricating the truth to aid her brother’s case. It would certainly not be the first time that a family member gave false testimony in order to give their loved one a chance to be free of the system, and it certainly won’t be the last.

If every felon can simply fool the justice system with a last-minute application to bomb an IQ test and pretend to be mentally disabled for a panel of specialists, it looks like we’ll be having a lot more stays of execution in the future. Hopefully, mental disability does not take the place of the place of insanity pleas for criminals looking to get easier sentencing when they’re brought to trial for their misdeeds.

Melissa Mendes is a junior majoring in English.

1 reply
  1. Julian
    Julian says:

    I am sorry, Melissa Mendes, but your argumentation is seriously flawed. You claim that the attempt to prove that the inmate is mentally disabled is a last-ditch effort; if that were the case, it would indeed be a suspicious move to gain time. But get your facts straight. “Hill’s lawyers have long claimed he’s mentally disabled and therefore shouldn’t be executed. Last week they released new sworn statements from the three doctors who examined Hill in 2000 and previously testified he was not mentally disabled.” (Huffington Post) In case you don’t trust the HuffPost, here is what the Court of Appeal says:
    “In the state court proceedings in 2000, Hill presented four experts who testified that Hill was mentally retarded, and the State presented three experts … who testified that Hill was not. In the face of the whole record, the state courts concluded at the time that Hill was mentally retarded by a preponderance of the evidence, but that Hill had failed to demonstrate that he was mentally retarded beyond a reasonable doubt as required by [state law]. In his current application, however, Hill has filed affidavits from all three of the State’s experts … each of whom has revised his opinion and now testifies that Hill meets the criteria for mental retardation.”
    Interesting, isn’t it, that the state of Georgia was so keen on getting Hill executed/murdered that they presented three “experts” that defended Georgia’s viewpoint. None of them was obviously independent or unbiased at that point in time (by now, they have all changed their opinion on Hill’s mental abilities).
    Also, dear Melissa, but is execution the only way to keep someone away from the public because he/she is considered a danger? Seriously, that is the point of therapy and medication and secure, solitary confinement.

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