Lawyers challenge Ga.'s standard for death penalty inmates claiming intellectual disability



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ATLANTA — A Georgia death row inmate on Friday filed a new challenge to the state's requirement for defendants to prove intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt to be spared execution on those grounds.

The lawsuit filed in Butts County Superior Court says a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May bolsters arguments made by Georgia death row inmate Warren Lee Hill against Georgia's toughest in the nation "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard.

The high court in 2002 barred execution of the intellectually disabled, but left to the states the determination of who is intellectually disabled.

The U.S. Supreme Court in May knocked down a Florida law that said any inmate who tests above 70 on an IQ test is not intellectually disabled and may be executed. The opinion said IQ tests have a margin of error and inmates whose scores fall within the margin must be allowed to present other evidence of intellectual disability.

Brian Kammer, a lawyer for Hill, said the high court's ruling also "highlights the error of the Georgia standard."

Hill's lawyers have long argued Georgia's high standard for proving intellectual disability is problematic because psychiatric diagnoses are subject to a degree of uncertainty that is virtually impossible to overcome.

"Medical conditions are not proven 'beyond a reasonable doubt' in the medical world," Kammer said, adding that the high court has shown that it "requires the states to look to medical professionals and use their agreed-upon methods for determining intellectual disability."

Hill began showing signs of intellectual disability in childhood, and all doctors who have examined Hill now agree he's intellectually disabled, Kammer said. Three doctors who examined Hill in 2000 and testified before the court at the time that he was not intellectually disabled have since changed their opinions. All three submitted sworn statements in February 2013 saying they had reviewed facts and documents in the case now believe that Hill is intellectually disabled.

The state has consistently argued that Hill's defense has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is intellectually disabled, and Georgia's strictest-in-the-nation standard has repeatedly been upheld by state and federal courts.

The attorney general's office had no comment on Hill's latest filing, spokeswoman Lauren Kane wrote in an email.

Hill was sentenced to death in Lee County for the 1990 beating death of fellow inmate Joseph Handspike. At the time Hill was already serving a life sentence for murder in the 1986 slaying of his girlfriend.

Hill has come within hours of execution on three occasions, most recently in July 2013. Each time, a court has stepped in at the last minute and granted a delay based on challenges raised by his lawyers. Only one of those challenges was related to his intellectual abilities, and it was later dismissed. There is no date scheduled for Hill's execution at this time.

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