Strict Adherence to AEDPA Means 'Retarded' Inmate Will be Executed

By William Peacock, Esq. on April 25, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

While in prison for murdering his girlfriend, Warren Lee Hill ripped the leg off of a sink and beat a fellow inmate to death while other prisoners watched. He was tried and convicted by a jury and sentenced to death. He appealed his sentence through multiple trips to state and federal courts.

No matter your feelings on the death penalty, his impending execution should be worrisome. The unanimous opinion of seven experts is that Hill is mentally retarded*. It is the timing, however, of those opinions that may cost Hill his life. Four diagnosed him as mentally retarded at the time of his trial. Three initially thought he was malingering and reversed their opinions in the last year.

This new evidence proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Hill is mentally retarded. In Hill's last trip to the Eleventh Circuit in 2011, the court upheld Georgia's unique mandate that defendants prove retardation by such a lofty standard.

He is still set to die.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) places a high priority on finality of convictions. It allows a defendant only a single federal habeas corpus petition as a matter of right. Subsequent petitions are only granted where the claim in the subsequent petition has not already been made. If it is a new claim, it must fit within one of two exceptions.

According to the majority, this is not a new claim. Hill's previous petition argued that his execution would be unconstitutional because of his mental retardation. His current petition makes the same argument, albeit with new evidence. New evidence is not tantamount to a new claim.

"If all that was required to reassert years later a previously rejected claim was a change in testimony, every material witness would have the power to upset every notion of finality by simply changing his testimony ... New witnesses could be rounded up, and every new witness would transform the same old claim into a brand new one."

Of course, even had he argued a new claim, that claim would have to meet one of two narrow exceptions enumerated in 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(2): a new rule of constitutional law or newly discovered evidence of actual innocence.

Hill concedes that there is no new rule of constitutional law here that wasn't available previously. Georgia law allowed mental retardation claims during his trial. Atkins was decided in 2002, well before his first habeas petition in 2004. And he did, indeed, raise mental retardation claims prior to this petition.

The other exception requires a showing that the newly discovered evidence establishes proof of innocence of the underlying offense. Hill doesn't assert innocence. He merely is asking to have the ultimate punishment taken off the table due to his mental impairment.

As a strict interpretation of the AEDPA, the majority opinion is sound. It is a very restrictive law that keeps death row inmates from stalling the date of their execution by filing meritless appeals and petitions. That's not what we have here, however, and even if the strict reading of AEDPA supports the majority's opinion, the spirit and intent of the law is violated by their decision.

The truly interesting arguments, however, come up in the dissent -- especially the question of whether the circuit court can use the Supreme Court's holding in Atkins v. Virginia, (the execution of mentally retarded inmates is unconstitutional), to bypass AEDPA. The Constitution does trump ordinary legislation, after all. We'll have more on the dissent later this week.

*We're aware that the proper term for Mr. Hill's cognitive impairment is "intellectually disabled". However, due to the court and prior case law's usage of the antiquated alternative, we use "retardation" in order to preserve readability.

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