Georgia won't kill Warren Hill today. Hill, a death row inmate with a reported IQ of 70, was granted a stay hours before his scheduled 7 p.m. execution. And while Hill's mental capacity is at the center of the national debate surrounding the constitutionality of Georgia' plans to use capital punishment in his case, that's not why a Fulton county judge stepped in today. The stay, pending a hearing on Thursday, has to do with how the state obtains the drugs used in lethal objections.
Hill's lawyers challenged the constitutionality of Hill's execution by questioning a new state law, the Lethal Injection Secrecy Act. The law makes the method by which the state obtains the drug used for lethal injections, as well as how they're manufactured, state secrets. At The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen has explained the reason this law exists, and how it applies to Hill's case:
For reasons that are now fairly well-known, the state has had trouble finding the drug -- Pentobarbital -- that is required to complete the execution. This is so because the U.S. manufacturer of the drug ceased to produce it in 2011 after European manufacturers embargoed its importation here (because of their objections to its use in American executions). As "official" supplies of the drug have dwindled, state officials have resorted to dramatic means -- including possibly unlawful means -- to obtain it...
...This unprecedented secrecy, Hill's lawyers argue in their Friday brief, this freezing out of judicial review of capital protocols, creates a "grave risk" that their client will be subjected to "excruciating and unnecessary pain and suffering" when he is killed.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the drug intended for use in Hill's execution came from an individual pharmacy, because it's impossible for Georgia to purchase it from a larger manufacturer at this point. Pentobarbital, the paper explains, is the back-up drug for Georgia executions: after the state ran out of their supply of the three-drug cocktail usually used in lethal injections, they turned to the single drug, usually used to euthanize animals. Then, their supply of Pentobarbital ran out, too.
In February, Hill came within 30 minutes of dying before federal and state appeals court intervened, in order to further examine whether Hill was indeed mentally disabled. The Supreme Court's 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision bars capital punishment for the "mentally retarded" (SCOTUS's words), but leaves it up to the states to decide what that means. Georgia's definition is widely-regarded as the strictest in the country. Hill, already serving a life sentence for murder, was sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of a fellow inmate. If the judge rules in the state's favor on Thursday, allowing the execution to go forward, the state will need to reschedule.
Photo: Warren Hill, via Reuters.