10 Last-minute Stays of Execution


He Won Two Stays in the Same Day

Warren Lee Hill is shown in this undated Georgia Department of Corrections photograph. © HANDOUT/Reuters/Corbis
Warren Lee Hill is shown in this undated Georgia Department of Corrections photograph. © HANDOUT/Reuters/Corbis

Warren Lee Hill's case was one that prompted impassioned arguments from both sides in the debate about the ethics of the death penalty. To proponents, he was a menace to society for whom being behind bars was no deterrent; Hill beat another prison inmate to death with a nail-studded board in 1990, while he was serving a life sentence for the 1985 slaying of his girlfriend. But to death penalty opponents, he was a developmentally disabled man with an IQ of just 70, unfairly sentenced to death.

Unfortunately for Hill, he committed his crimes in Georgia, a state where the law requires inmates to prove mental impairment beyond a reasonable doubt to qualify for mercy, perhaps the strictest standard in the nation. Hill's lawyers responded by attacking the Georgia standard as inequitable, even as they also raised questions about whether Georgia's lethal injection-drug regimen violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. In Feb. 19 2013, they won an unusual double victory, simultaneously obtaining stays of execution from both federal and state courts. The reprieve came just in time — about 30 minutes before Hill was scheduled to receive a lethal injection at a state prison south of Atlanta [source: Watkins and Smith]. For Hill, it was the second close call. In July 2012, he received a stay from the Georgia Supreme Court just hours before he was to be executed [source: CNN]. However on January 27, 2015 he was finally executed. His lawyer called it a "grotesque miscarriage of justice" [source: Connor].

Author's Note: 10 Last-minute Stays of Execution

In my 30-year career as a journalist, I've covered a number of murder cases. I've listed to some grisly courtroom testimony about extreme acts of violence and got to see the perpetrators close-up. I've also met the families of murder victims, and seen the heartache and trauma they've experienced. As a result, I don't have much sympathy for convicted killers, and I don't have any abstract moral qualms about the death penalty. In practical terms, however, I also know that capital punishment doesn't work very well, because ensuring that there aren't any wrongful executions necessitates an appeals process that can be lengthy, time-consuming, and extremely expensive to taxpayers. As a result, Randy Kraft, a California serial killer whose case I covered in the 1980s, was still sitting on death row at San Quentin prison 24 years after his conviction for 16 murders. I'm guessing that the cost of litigating his appeals and keeping him in segregated, high-security confinement all those years has cost taxpayers many additional millions of dollars, while providing little consolation to his victims' families.

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