Eleventh Circuit OKs Georgia Death Penalty Standard

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 23, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Georgia’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for proving mental disability in capital crime cases on Tuesday.

In a 110-page opinion, the divided circuit reasoned that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act required the court to affirm the Georgia death penalty standard - even if the court believed the standard was “unwise or incorrect - because there is no “clearly established” standard in Supreme Court precedent or federal law regarding the burden of proof for mental retardation claims.

While the U.S. Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that executing a mentally retarded inmate constituted "cruel and unusual punishment," the Court gave the states discretion to develop standards for determining retardation.

Georgia actually led the country in outlawing the execution of mentally disabled inmates in 1988, 14 years before the Court's Atkins holding, but the state still adheres to the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard for determining if a defendant is mentally disabled.

In the case before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Hill v. Humphrey, petitioner Warren Lee Hill raised a mental retardation claim in a state habeas appeal five years after he was convicted on murder charges. "Hill's IQ tests indicated that he may meet the medical definition of mild mental retardation, but a county judge found he didn't meet the other criteria" under the Georgia standard reports the AP.

While the majority affirmed the Georgia death penalty standard, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals seems to be inviting Supreme Court review in the case.

Judge Frank Hull, citing the Supreme Court's recent decision in Bobby v. Dixon, wrote, "We do not decide whether Georgia's burden of proof is constitutionally permissible, but only that no decision of the United States Supreme Court clearly establishes that it is unconstitutional. Simply put, Hill has failed to show 'that no fair-minded jurist could agree' with the Georgia Supreme Court's decision about the burden of proof, and thus this Court is 'without authority to overturn the reasoned judgment of the State's highest court.'"

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