Before the term became banned by political correctness, being retarded had a medical definition. Medical Retardation is a developmental disability that is diagnosed when one has an IQ score below 70-75 and “significant limitations in two or more adaptive skill areas.” (1)
Warren Lee Hill, Jr. has an IQ of 70, putting him right at the borderline of diagnosis. Despite the fact that his elementary school teachers recognized his deficits (2), he was not enrolled in a special education program in school. It was left to mainstream teachers to give him the assistance he needed to master the tasks that he would need to successfully navigate life. Not surprisingly they failed.
School officials also failed to recognize the horrors of Warren’s home life, which went beyond the problems of living in poverty. According to his sister, his Mother and Grandfather referred to him with terms like “stupid child,” “stupid retard” or simply “dumb ass.” They would often beat him into unconsciousness. (3)
As a student, Warren was described as non-functioning. He could barely read or write. (4) Yet he was promoted year after year. Eventually, they got rid of their problem by graduating him. He became society’s permanent problem in 1986 when he murdered Myra Wright by shooting her eleven times.
Warren Hill was sentenced to life in prison for his crime. At some point he became cellmates with Joseph Handspike, who is alleged to have sexually harassed Warren. Somehow Warren got a hold of a nail studded board and beat his cellmate to death as he slept. According to witnesses he yelled “you’re not so bad now” as he committed the act.
My usual opposition to the death penalty is that we cannot trust the government to get it right. I find it terribly ironic that Conservatives, who distrust the government in seemingly every other matter, are the ones who support the government’s ability to kill people. According to the Innocence Project, “between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent.” (5) If just one of these innocent people receives the death penalty, I believe that society as a whole becomes no better than the killers that we put to death.
In this case there is no doubt in assessing the guilt of the perpetrator. He is only on death row because of the second murder and this occurred in a controlled environment in front of both prisoners and guards. The victim was sleeping, so this was not a case of self defense. Warren Lee Hill is a murderer.
If someone is already serving a life sentence, the threat of punishing him with another is not sufficient to deter future crimes. Therefore, in cases like this I feel like the the death penalty is an acceptable punishment. This case certainly meets this criteria.
Yet this case makes me uncomfortable.
In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v Virginia that states cannot execute people with intellectual disabilities. At first glance this ban seems to be based on an assumption that these people cannot tell the difference between right and wrong. Warren’s intellectual development was the equivalent of a sixth grader, but sixth graders know that murder is wrong. If he knew the difference between right and wrong, should he be exempt from the appropriate punishment?
I think that this argument goes beyond the ability to measure IQ. People with this diagnosis are “subject to impulsive behaviour and poor decision making at times of stress and threat.” (6) If Warren was being harassed by his cellmate, what coping skills did he have for dealing with the situation? Prisons do not exactly have stellar reputations for dealing with sexual abuse within the population. This would leave him on his own to deal with the problem without the ability to do so. Is it right for society to give him the ultimate punishment for failing?
The Supreme Court left the enforcement of this ban to the states. Georgia alone requires the defendant to prove his retardation beyond a reasonable doubt. This level of proof gives credence to my distrust of government to get these matters right. All three experts that testified for the state that Warren was not subject to the ban now have now “reviewed facts and documents in the case and wrote that they now believe that Hill is mentally disabled.” (7) Part of their explanation for their change in opinion was that their original work was rushed. (8)
It is often stated to provide justice to victims and their families. However, in this case the victim’s nephew, Joseph L. Handspike, has written that he and his family do not want Mr. Hill to be executed, and that “we believe a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is an appropriate and just resolution for this case and for us as the family of Joseph Handspike.” (9)
When a state pushes hard against existing law, the evolved opinion of experts that they previously relied upon and the victim’s family, I think the only remaining explanation is vengance. In the words of one pro-death penalty web site:
“If you have a rabid, sick dog, you don’t just leave him chained up for the rest of its life in a fenced yard. You do the humane thing and put him down — for its own sake as well as the safety of others. Same goes for sick animals like Warren Hill.“ (10)
I would hope that our country is better than that.