State experts change opinions in condemned killer’s case
By Bill Rankin
Feb. 14, 2013
Hill is to die by lethal injection on Tuesday at 7 p.m. His lawyers have already asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution. On Thursday, they said they will soon ask a state court judge to consider the doctors’ new statements and will use them when asking the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to give Hill a new clemency hearing.
During a key hearing 13 years ago, state attorneys called on two psychiatrists and a psychologist to refute Hill’s claims that he is mentally disabled and thus ineligible for execution. All three doctors now say they were mistaken when they testified Hill was not mentally disabled.
“Having reviewed my earlier evaluation results and the far more extensive materials from the record of this case, I believe that my judgment that Mr. Hill did not meet the criteria for mild mental retardation was in error,” said one of the experts, Thomas Sachy, a forensic psychiatrist.
In their affidavits, the doctors described their evaluations of Hill in late 2000 as rush jobs. They also said they did not have all the information they needed to make a proper diagnosis.
The scientific understanding of mental retardation has grown over the past dozen years, the doctors said, giving them better insight into evaluating a person such as Hill, whom they initially believed was faking.
Brian Kammer, one of Hill’s attorneys, said there is now a consensus among all experts that Hill is mentally retarded. “The prospect of his execution under such circumstances should shock the conscience,” he said.
Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, declined comment. She said her office will respond in court when Hill’s lawyers file their new motions.
Hill sits on death row for fatally bludgeoning fellow inmate Joseph Handspike in 1990 with a nail-stooded wooden board. At the time, Hill was serving a life sentence at a southwest Georgia prison for killing his 18-year-old girlfriend in 1986.
Hill was scheduled to be executed last July. But the Georgia Supreme Court stayed his execution with two hours to spare to determine Hill’s challenge to the state’s decision to replace its lethal injection cocktail with one drug. On Feb. 4, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Department of Corrections and lifted Hill’s stay of execution.
The case has attracted national attention. Two state court judges have found that Hill was mentally retarded, but they said Hill only proved that he was more likely than not mentally retarded.
That’s not strong enough proof in Georgia, which is the only state in the country that requires capital defendants to prove mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt. Such a finding for Hill means he would be sentenced to life in prison.
When the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of the mentally retarded in 2002, the court left it up to each state to decide how mental retardation determinations are made. Georgia’s legal standard has been upheld on appeal.
During the December 2000 hearing to determine whether Hill met the criteria of mental retardation, his attorneys presented testimony from four experts who said Hill was mildly mentally retarded. State attorneys countered with their own three experts who testified he was not.
One of them, Sachy, who worked part-time at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, evaluated Hill during an hourlong interview. In his affidavit, Sachy said he contacted Hill’s attorneys last July after reading media reports about the case.
Concerned his initial conclusions were unreliable, Sachy said he wanted to take another look at his original notes and reports, as well as other evidence. Sachy also noted he did not have experience in 2000 evaluating patients for mental retardation but has since treated many patients who were mentally disabled.
After revisiting the case, Sachy said, “I do not believe now that Mr. Hill was deliberately feigning a cognitive disorder in 2000, and I believe that his responses to my questions were consistent with mild mental retardation.”
James Gary Carter, Central State’s former Clinical Director of Forensic Services, and Donald W. Harris, once a licensed psychologist at the hospital, also say they were wrong when they testified against Hill.
“My more careful review of the record today establishes that Mr. Hill has consistently, from childhood, demonstrated significantly subaverage intellectual functioning,” Harris said in his affidavit.
Carter said his evaluation of Hill in 2000 was “extremely and unusually rushed” and, even then, “it was a close case.” Back then, Carter said, he either overlooked or was not provided Hill’s grammar school records which show he failed all but one subject.
“Our rushed evaluation in 2000 was simply not conducive to an accurate assessment of Mr. Hill’s condition under the circumstances,” he said.