This is one issue in which how you conceive of “free will” can have real consequences in people’s lives.
Warren Hill, an inmate on Georgia’s death row, has an IQ of 70, which is close to the borderline figure that Georgia considers “mental retardation”. The state can’t execute the mentally retarded.
A panel of seven state and independent psychologists agrees he is “mildly mentally retarded” and should be precluded from the lethal injection needle.
That might satisfy Texas or Florida to spare Hill’s life, as those capital-punishment states rely on a “preponderance of the evidence” to decide who should be put to death.
But not Georgia.
The Empire State of the South stands alone in America with a death-penalty law that requires a defendant prove intellectual disability “beyond a reasonable doubt” to win clemency.
Now I’m completely opposed to the death penalty, whether or not the perpetrator is “mentally retarded,” suffers from some other malady, or is “normal” and judged able to tell right from wrong. Execution is a brutal punishment for an enlightened country: a punishment that costs more than life without parole, and which has no palpable deterrent effect. Its only value is retribution, which serves no social purpose. And for Hill it’s worse than this, since he’s come close to execution several times.
Georgia’s department of corrections has tried three times since July 2012 to give Hill a fatal dose of execution drugs, only to be stopped by 11th-hour stays of execution.
In at least one of those instances, Hill already had a sedative in his system before the lethal injection was halted.
The question here is why people like HIll, who may eventually be spared for having a low IQ, should be treated any differently from “normal” murderers.
Even the family of Joseph Handspike, the cellmate who taunted Hill in 1990 and was later beaten to death by the condemned inmate with a nail-studded board, has appealed for Hill to be removed from death row on humanitarian grounds.
Kathy Keeley, executive director of the Atlanta-based group All About Developmental Disabilities, said the goal now is to get legislators to draft and introduce a new bill in January without the “beyond a reasonable doubt” language.
“Our Supreme Court decided years ago that you should not — and cannot — execute somebody with an intellectual disability,” Keeley said.
So that’s the law, and it’s obviously designed to give special treatment to those who, I guess, can’t tell right from wrong or internalize the consequences of their crime.
Kammer [Hill’s lawyer] allows that psychiatric diagnoses are, by their nature, very complex, with experts making assessments on “a reasonable degree of scientific certainty,” rather than making absolute conclusions.
IQ measurement is also an imprecise science, with possible standard deviations of plus or minus five points.
Warren Hill’s case “illustrates that people whose condition is right on that cut-off point, they’re most at risk for being wrongfully executed,” he said.
“When you get to these close cases, you really want the system to err on the side of finding” intellectual disability.
There’s an ironic wrinkle to this case as well, observes Richard Dieter, director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Centre.
Dieter pointed out that, until 1988, no U.S. state had ever passed a law prohibiting the execution of inmates found “guilty but mentally retarded.” Georgia took the first step with its provision.
As I said, I don’t think anybody should be executed by the state for crimes—anywhere. Even Saddam Hussein should have been sentenced to life without parole. The U.S. is one of the few First World countries to retain this barbaric punishment. Here, from Wikipedia, is a figure showing which countries retain the death penalty (brick red), and those which have abolished it for all crimes (blue). Other colors are countries that use it sparingly or haven’t used it for at least a decade:
But here’s my question: if we are going to spare condemned criminals on the grounds of “mental disability” or “not knowing right from wrong”—presumably because they had no choice about whether to commit the crimes—on what grounds do we execute “normal” people? After all, nearly everyone here is a determinist who believes that nobody, not even the intellectually competent criminal, has a choice about whether they murder or not. In some sense, every death-row inmate has a “brain disease”: the disease of determinism.
And, once we get rid of the death penalty (soon, I hope, but probably not in my lifetime), shouldn’t we start treating every criminal as if he/she had a brain disease? Granted, you should treat mentally impaired people differently from non-impaired ones (medication might, for example, be more useful for the former), but, in the end, we should draw no distinction between classes of criminals who supposedly had a “choice” about whether to commit their crime, and whether they had “no choice.” That is a phony distinction. If there is a distinction to be drawn, it should involve who is more likely to offend again, what kind of rehabilitation is most helpful, and what kind of punishment will best deter others. None of these involves the issue of whether a criminal did a deed “of his own free will.”