Expert Update: Create Change Together

The mood was somber as we stood in the dark outside the NAACP offices in Columbus, GA. On that cold winter evening on January 27, 2015, nearly 150 advocates for people with disabilities, NAACP leadership and concerned community members listened as Dorinda Tatum, organizing director of Georgians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Community Builder for GCDD’s Real Communities Initiative shared the news: all avenues of appeal were denied and Warren Lee Hill was to be executed that evening.

In turn, I addressed the large crowd, which was stunned into silence, save for soft weeping by some. Choking back tears, I shared that I had been one of the “experts” who had evaluated Hill. I had reviewed piles of evaluations and records and after my review, I concluded that Hill was a person with an intellectual disability.

I was not the only person who evaluated Hill. A parade of experts and doctors offered their conclusions to the court, including new statements by three doctors who had examined him in 2000. Subsequent reviews in 2013 used improved scientific testing methodologies to change their initial reports. In the end, six doctors, including those hired by the prosecution, reviewed the facts of the case and ultimately agreed: Warren Lee Hill was a person with an intellectual disability.

Georgia law and a 2002 US Supreme Court decision of Atkins v. Virginia, prohibit the execution of people who have intellectual disabilities. There we were, in 2015, huddling together, candles lit, waiting as Hill’s execution was being carried out.

I told the crowd that had Hill been in any other state in the nation, we would likely not be standing here, awaiting word of his death. We would not be here, holding vigil. It comes down to the level of proof required to prove that a person has an intellectual disability.

Georgia has the toughest standard in the nation for proving intellectual disability. It requires capital defendants to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they are intellectually disabled in order to avoid execution on those grounds.

Hill’s lawyers argued Georgia’s standard is unconstitutional because mental diagnoses are subject to a degree of uncertainty that is virtually impossible to overcome. How many more experts would have to agree before that burden were achieved?

I am not new to reviewing an individual in a determination of disability process. I wrote one of the first evaluations of L.C. in the Olmstead decision. I evaluated people with intellectual disabilities in nursing homes to help them qualify for community-based services. This was not my first evaluation; I know the score.

For over 25 years, I have worked in Georgia supporting people with disabilities when the justice system has become a juggernaut that has run them over. People with disabilities risk exploitation, longer sentences, lack of supports and violence within this system.

Research has shown these poor outcomes tie to people not knowing their rights, not understanding the process, being unwilling to disclose disabilities because it makes them a target in jail/prison. In the justice system, there is a lack of understanding of disability issues by law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, judges and jail staff.

Although there are training efforts to help different sectors of the justice system understand the vulnerability of people with intellectual disabilities, they are woefully unfunded/under-resourced.

After Hill was put to death and in the days following his execution, I found myself driving and having to pull to the side of the road to weep. I am haunted by this singular truth: Even with all the hard work by his legal team, those expert reports and across the board agreement about his intellectual disability ... we had not been able to save Warren Lee Hill.

The night of the vigil I asked people to remember him and that even though the work is hard, there are people counting on us to step up and do the hard work, to change those things that are unjust. When people are alone and caught in a wheel of hard times and injustice, we must be courageous and turn towards them instead of away from them. We need to join together and ask legislators to change the law, change the burden of proof requirement to be in line with other states. We need to collaborate with other groups who are interested in criminal justice issues, knowing that we do not need to agree on everything, but that there is common ground where we can create change together.

On January 27, I stood alongside scores of advocates for people with disabilities, with prayers by Reverend Bill Gaventa, being led in song by the leadership of NAACP Columbus Chapter President Tonya Ganza and Past President Edward Dubose. That night, there was an important spark of connection. My heart was heavy, but in that moment, it became a place for us to move forward together.

LESA NITCY HOPE, PhD, LMSW, QDDP has worked for the past 25 years on supporting people with disabilities and their families through advocacy, education, family support and social services programs. Her areas of interest are looking at the resilience and many gifts that people with disabilities possess, even as they are disproportionately impacted by poverty, isolation, poor educational supports, victimization and challenging interactions with the justice system. She has worked as an expert witness and evaluator on disability-related issues in a number of criminal and civil cases.

Tags: Making a Difference, Expert Update