Ga. execution stayed over switch to 1-drug method

July 23, 2012 - 7:36 PM

JACKSON, Ga. (AP) — The Georgia Supreme Court stayed Monday's scheduled execution of a man convicted of killing a fellow prison inmate, saying it would consider a defense challenge to the state's recent adoption of a single-drug injection method.

The court also said it declined to review a separate defense appeal that claimed Warren Lee Hill is mentally disabled and shouldn't be executed for that reason. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing the mentally disabled constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and Georgia law prohibits it.

Hill was convicted in the Aug. 17, 1990, beating death of a fellow inmate, Joseph Handspike. Hill was serving a life sentence at the time for the shooting death of his 18-year-old girlfriend.

Hill was the first Georgia death row inmate scheduled to be executed since the state announced last week it was changing from a three-drug combination to a single lethal dose of the sedative pentobarbital to carry out court-ordered death sentences. The state previously used pentobarbital to sedate inmates before injecting pancuronium bromide to paralyze them and then potassium chloride to stop their hearts.

Hill's execution, initially planned for last Wednesday, was reset one day earlier when state announced the change in execution procedure.

At issue, the Georgia Supreme Court said in an order Monday, was a question raised by the defense whether switching to a single drug required a public hearing before it could be instituted under existing administrative procedures. The court order didn't specify how long it would take to consider the issue.

"I am profoundly grateful that the Supreme Court entered this stay of execution," said Hill's lawyer, Brian Kammer.

But Kammer said he was disappointed the high court declined to review his claim that Hill is mentally disabled.

"I plan to go to the U.S. Supreme Court with that to see what they have to say about it," he added.

The state has previously said Hill's defense lawyers failed to conclusively show a mental disability. One Georgia justice, Robert Benham, was the lone dissenter from the court's decision not to hear the mental disability issue.

Georgia passed a law in 1988 prohibiting the execution of mentally disabled death row inmates, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the execution of mentally disabled offenders is unconstitutional. The state has said Hill's defense has failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Hill is mentally disabled.

Georgia's standard of requiring death row inmates to prove mental disability beyond a reasonable doubt is the toughest in the country. Most states that impose the death penalty have a lower threshold for defendants to prove they are mentally disabled, while some states don't set standards at all.