ATLANTA — The Georgia Supreme Court has issued a ruling Monday that effectively lifts the stay of execution of a man convicted of killing a fellow prison inmate in Lee County in 1990.
Lawyers for Warren Lee Hill had challenged the Georgia Department of Correction's decision to abandon the three-drug cocktail previously used to execute inmates with one drug without going through a lengthy series of public hearings as required under the Georgia Administrative Procedure Act.
In a unanimous opinion Monday, the justices ruled that the change in drugs is not subject to the act and lifted the stay of execution previously granted for Hill.
“Specifically, this case concerns who is legally authorized to select the drug or drugs to be used in executions in Georgia and how that choice may be made,” the opinion says. “However, this case could also affect the remaining myriad of management decisions made throughout Georgia’s prison system,” as it concerns “when those decisions must be made directly by the Board of Corrections in its policy-making role versus when they may be left to the statutorily-granted management prerogatives of the Commissioner of Corrections and the Department of Corrections that he manages.”
According to the Georgia Supreme Court, Hill received the death penalty in 1991 after a Lee County jury convicted him of murder in the 1990 bludgeoning death of a fellow prison inmate, Joseph Handspike. Hill and Handspike were inmates at the Lee County Correctional Institute. According to the facts of the case, Hill was already serving a life sentence for murdering his former 18-year-old girlfriend, Myra Sylvia Wright, when on the morning of Aug. 17, 1990, he removed a two-by-six board embedded with nails that served as a sink leg in the prison bathroom and, as Handspike slept, pounded him in his head and chest with the board as onlooking prisoners pleaded with him to stop. Handspike later died at the hospital.
In 1993, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld his conviction and death sentence.
Last July, the Lee County Superior Court entered an order for execution during a period of time between July 18 and July 25, 2012. Hours before his execution, the Georgia Supreme Court issued the stay and decided to hear his case.
In today’s opinion, the high court has affirmed the lower court’s ruling and lifted Hill’s stay of execution, concluding that the Board of Corrections “is not specifically required by statute to make rules governing the particular subject of lethal injection procedures….” Under the Georgia Code, the board “shall adopt rules governing the assignment, housing, working, feeding, clothing, treatment, discipline, rehabilitation, training and hospitalization of all inmates coming under its custody.” Hill’s attorneys argued that under this duty to adopt rules governing the “treatment” administered to prison inmates, the board is required to adopt rules governing executions, and “rules” adopted by the board are subject to the Administrative Procedure Act. “We disagree for several reasons,” the high court says in its 21-page opinion. For one thing, the word “treatment” here does not carry the broader meaning of how inmates are handled overall, but rather refers more narrowly to their medical care. “Lethal injection may involve a drug or drugs that could be used in medical care; however, using a massive dose of a drug with the sole intention of causing immediate death cannot, we think, be reasonably described as medical care,” the opinion says.
The order Monday does not state when Hill may be executed.