ATLANTA — The Georgia Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a Lee County murder case that questions whether replacing a three-drug execution cocktail with a single drug is subject to the state’s Administrative Procedure Act.
According to information from the Georgia Supreme Court, Warren Lee Hill was given a death sentence in 1991 after a Lee County Superior Court jury convicted him of the 1990 bludgeoning death of a fellow prison inmate at Lee State Prison (then Lee County Correctional Institute).
Hill was serving a life sentence he received in 1986 for murdering his former girlfriend, Myra Sylvia Wright, who was 18, in 1985 in Cobb County. His 1991 death sentence was the first one handed down in the Southwestern Judicial Circuit that includes Lee County in 50 years.
According to reports, Hill used a two-by-six board embedded with nails to beat inmate Joseph Handspike, who had been sleeping, on the head and chest. Handspike later died at a hospital. In 1993, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld Hill’s conviction and death sentence.
On July 3, Lee Superior Court entered an order authorizing the state to execute Hill between July 18 and July 25. It was originally scheduled for July 18 and then delayed until July 23, a change that coincided with the Georgia Department of Corrections’ decision to replace the three-drug lethal injection with a single drug.
On July 20, 2012, Hill’s attorneys filed a complaint in Fulton County Superior Court seeking to declare the new procedure invalid and to prevent his execution by means of the allegedly invalid procedure. They also petitioned the court for a “writ of mandamus” to force the state to follow the rule-making procedures required by the Administrative Procedure Act. And they filed a motion to stay Hill’s execution pending the resolution of his claims.
On July 23, the day his execution was scheduled, a Fulton County Superior Court judge ruled the Administrative Procedure Act did not apply and denied a stay of execution. Hill appealed to the state Supreme Court and hours before his execution, the high court unanimously granted Hill a stay so it could consider his appeal.
Hill’s attorneys are arguing that the lower court erred in dismissing their client’s challenge, saying that the new lethal injection protocol is a rule that should have been adopted under the requirements of the APA. They say that the public should be assured that every step of the process has been conducted lawfully.
State attorneys content the trial court was correct in determining the department’s lethal injection protocol was not a rule that triggered the procedural requirements of the APA. They say that the Department of Corrections, its commissioner and the Board of Corrections are not “an agency” under APA, that department protocols for carrying out executions have never been adopted as “rules” under APA and that statutory mandates regarding lethal injection are directed exclusively to the department and the commissioner and not to the board.