Court clears way for Execution in Lee Co. murder case - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Court clears way for Execution in Lee Co. murder case

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ATLANTA, GA (WALB) -

The Georgia Supreme Court issued a summary of its ruling concerning the method that the state uses to execute condemned inmates.

This clears the way for Warren Lee Hill to die by lethal injection for the 1990 murder of a prison inmate at the Lee State prison.

Here is the summary-

HILL V. OWENS ET AL. (S12A1819)     

In a ruling that affects the day-to-day management of Georgia'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 today's unanimous decision, written by Justice P. Harris Hines, the high court has lifted the stay of execution it granted last July to Warren Lee Hill hours before he was due to die by lethal injection for the 1990 murder of a prison inmate.

"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."

            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.

On July 3, 2012, the Lee County Superior Court entered an order directing the state Department of Corrections to execute Hill by lethal injection within the 7-day period between July 18, 2012 and July 25, 2012. The department originally scheduled Hill's execution for July 18, then rescheduled it for July 23. The change in date occurred at the same time that 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 July 23, 2012, 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, this Court unanimously granted Hill a stay so it could consider his appeal.

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.

Also, while the Board of Corrections has the authority to make rules governing lethal injections under state law, it does not have a legal duty to do so. "It would be impossible for the Board to adopt rules governing every aspect of prison life, and it would be unnecessary and even undesirable for it to adopt such rules regarding certain specific topics," the opinion says.  Rather the Georgia Code "provides that the Board is responsible for establishing general policy for the prison system but that the Commissioner is entrusted with the power to direct the prison system's functions within that general policy."

"The Code imposes on the Commissioner and the Department a variety of duties specific to managing executions, among which choosing the drug or drugs is just one," today's opinion says. "It is clearly reasonable for the Board not to attempt to circumscribe the Commissioner's management prerogatives regarding each of these individual duties, which may require the exercise of discretion under fast-changing circumstances."

Therefore, the opinion says: "We conclude that it was not unreasonable for the Board 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."

Attorneys for Appellant (Hill): V. Robert Denham, Jr., Brian Kammer

Attorneys for Appellee (State): Samuel Olens, Attorney General, Mary Beth Westmoreland, Dep. A.G., Joseph Drolet, Sr. Asst. A.G., Ashley Culberson, Asst. A.G.