An execution always raises questions of morality.
Brutal, horrific crimes that violate our sisters and brothers do so as well.
But when the state kills – on behalf of we the people who are the state – is it a matter of justice? Or revenge? Is it an act of retribution? And is that the best we can do? Do executions make us safer? Do they convey the message that violence is the most appropriate answer to violence? Do they demean us all and fuel a cycle of violence?
The pending execution of Warren Lee Hill, Jr., currently scheduled for February 19 in Georgia, raises all these questions and more.
Hill was serving time for the murder of his girl friend when he was convicted of killing another inmate and sentenced to death. There is no question of his guilt.
The question in this case, beyond those in any execution, revolve around Hill’s mental capacity. His IQ is reported to be 70. This raises the question of his mental capacity and his awareness to understand his acts.
The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, ruled that executions of mentally retarded criminals are “cruel and unusual punishments” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The Court cited the growing number of states prohibiting the execution of persons with mental retardation as a reflection of society’s view that offenders considered to have mental retardation are categorically less culpable than the average criminal. The Court also reasoned that it was “not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty.”
However, Georgia has a high standard of proof for proving mental retardation: the standard of proving mental incapacitation beyond a reasonable doubt. Georgia does not believe that standard has been met in Hill’s case.
His attorney and those concerned for Hill are not seeking a pardon. They ask that he be granted clemency and incarcerated for life. The U.S. Supreme Court could prevent Hill’s execution in the next few days.
I grieve for Myra Wright and Joseph Handspike who were killed by Warren Lee Hill, Jr. and for their family and friends. There can be no defense for Hill’s crimes.
But that is not all the story. What does it say about our society – about us – that we resort to execution in the case of an individual with the mental capacity and awareness of Hill? Can we not find another way?
See you along the Trail.