A sign displays the portrait of Warren Hill during a protest advocating for alternatives to the death penalty in Atlanta, Georgia, Monday, July 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White)
On July 18, one day before he was scheduled to die, Warren Hill, a mentally disabled prisoner on Georgia’s death row, was spared from the execution chamber when a Fulton County Superior Court judge granted him a temporary reprieve.
It was not the first time that Hill, who has been diagnosed as having an IQ of 70, had faced imminent death. One year earlier, on July 23, 2012, Hill ate his last meal and said his final goodbyes as he prepared for an execution that was halted ninety minutes before he was supposed to die by lethal injection. Seven months after that, Hill came within thirty minutes of execution—he was sedated and strapped to the gurney—when a stay was granted. And on July 15 of this year, he was granted another temporary stay with less than four hours to spare, only for a new date to be set, for four days later. All told, in just under a year, Hill has come within hours of execution four times.
Hill, who had already been serving a life sentence for killing his girlfriend in 1986, was sentenced to death for the 1990 deadly prison beating of a fellow inmate, Joseph Handspike.
It is not uncommon for prisoners on death row to face multiple execution dates and last-minute stays as attorneys try to keep them alive. Some might consider Hill lucky for surviving so many execution dates. But human rights experts believe that repeated trips to the death chamber, followed by last-minute reprieves, amount to psychological torture. Although the death penalty has long been upheld despite the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” Brian Evans, head of Amnesty International USA’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign, compares the psychological impact of an eleventh-hour stay of execution to a mock execution, in which someone is falsely led to believe he or she is about to be killed. “Mock executions are a form of torture under international law,” Evans told The Nation. “A last-minute stay isn’t quite as deliberate, but for the person on the gurney it’s the same effect.”
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), agrees, calling it “akin to a form of torture where people are told they’re going to die again and again and then spared.” He adds, “Warren Hill has been in a tight situation where it’s constantly unknown whether he’s going to be alive or dead twenty-four hours later. This seriously needs to be looked at as a cruel form of punishment.”
Brian Kammer, Hill’s attorney and director of the Georgia Resource Center, told The Nation that the past year has been “extremely traumatic and stressful” for Hill and his family. “Warren has been anxious and frightened. I can hear the tension in his voice,” he says. “In a sane world you wouldn’t put anyone through this kind of misery and insanity, particularly in this case, where all experts agree Warren is mentally retarded.”