ATLANTA — The state that was the first to pass a law prohibiting the execution of mentally disabled inmates is revisiting a requirement for defendants to prove the disability beyond a reasonable doubt – the strictest burden of proof in the nation.
A Georgia state House committee is meeting Thursday to seek input from the public. Other states that impose the death penalty have a lower threshold for proving mental disability, and some don’t set standards at all.
Just because lawmakers are holding a meeting does not mean changes will be proposed, and the review absolutely is not a first step toward abolishing Georgia’s death penalty, said state Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, the chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.
The law’s toughest-in-the-nation status compels lawmakers to review it, he said.
“When you’re an outlier, you really ought not to stick your head in the sand,” he said. “You need to go ahead and take a good, hard look at what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, weigh the pros and cons of a change and act accordingly or not.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 – 14 years after Georgia’s ban took effect – that the execution of mentally disabled offenders is unconstitutional.
The meeting comes against the backdrop of the case of Warren Lee Hill, who was sentenced to die for the 1990 beating death of inmate Joseph Handspike, who was bludgeoned with a nail-studded board as he slept. At the time, Hill was serving a life sentence for the 1986 slaying of his girlfriend, Myra Wright, who was shot 11 times.
Hill’s lawyers have long maintained he is mentally disabled and therefore shouldn’t be executed. The state has consistently argued that his lawyers have failed to prove his mental disability beyond a reasonable doubt.