ATLANTA — In a ruling that impacts the day-to-day management of the state's prison system, the Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled that the Department of Corrections' recent decision to replace a three-drug cocktail with one drug for executions is not subject to the Georgia Administrative Procedure Act, which requires public hearings before such a change may be made.
With this unanimous decision that came down Monday, the high court has lifted the stay of execution it granted last July to Lee County death row inmate Warren Lee Hill mere hours before he was due to die by lethal injection for the 1990 murder of a prison inmate, court records show.
Hill received the death penalty in 1991 after a Lee County jury convicted him of murder in the 1990 bludgeoning death of fellow inmate Joseph Handspike at the Lee County Correctional Institute. At the time, Hill was already serving a life sentence for the murder of his former 18-year-old girlfriend, Myra Sylvia Wright.
In 1993, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld his conviction and death sentence. On July 3 of last year, Lee County Superior Court entered an order directing the state Department of Corrections to execute Hill by lethal injection within the seven-day period between July 18 and July 25. The department originally scheduled Hill's execution for July 18 and then rescheduled it for July 23.
The change in date occurred at the same time the Department of Corrections announced it was changing from a three-chemical execution method to a one-chemical method.
On July 20, 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, which include giving 30 days notice to interested persons and the General Assembly — and they filed a motion to stay Hill's execution pending the resolution of his claims.
On the day his execution was scheduled, the Fulton County Superior Court ruled the Administrative Procedure Act did not apply and denied a stay of execution. Hill then appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia, and hours before his execution, it unanimously granted him a stay so it could consider his appeal.
In Monday's opinion, the high court affirmed the lower court's ruling and lifted Hill's stay of execution, ultimately concluding that "... it was not unreasonable for the Board (of Corrections) to entrust the specific topics involved in the management of executions to the Commissioner under the statutory and constitutional mandates that already apply to him rather than to give him detailed and rigid directives through rules."
The order did not state when Hill is to be executed.