Death-row inmate Warren Hill received another stay of execution this afternoon. But his fight to stay alive is hardly over as his legal team works to uphold today's ruling by a Fulton County judge - and to postpone his death by letahl injection, which is scheduled for tomorrow night.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Gail Tusan sided with Warren Hill today in a hearing over a new state law that would keep the source of lethal injection drugs, including the ones that would be used to execute the death-row inmate, confidential.
Tusan ruled that the Georgia law constitutionally limited Hill's access to the court to defend his Eighth Amendment rights to not be subject to cruel and unusual punishment. Given the lack of information available to Hill and his attorneys, the judge said the inmate faced potential "irreparable harm" and needed more information to properly decide his case.
State lawmakers passed the legislation creating the statute back in March as a tacked-on amendment to House Bill 122, which primarily deals with the state's Sexual Offender Registration Review Board. Gov. Nathan Deal signed the bill into law in May and went into effective on July 1.
Earlier this spring, Georgia came close to running out of lethal-injection drugs. State lawmakers passed the law to protect companies that provide the state with pentobarbital needed for lethal injections from potential pressure and harassment from anti-death penalty activists.
The state Department of Corrections obtained lethal-injection drugs for Hill's execution from a compounding pharmacy - which in the past week has been a major source of contention and discrepancy regarding the compounded drug's lack of approval from the Federal Drug Administration.
During today's hearing, experts from both sides offered conflicting testimony regarding the safety and reliability of drugs mixed by the compounding pharmacies. But Tusan ultimately ruled that Hill's legal team, and the general public, needed additional access to information that was restricted by the secrecy law.
Attorney Brian Kammer, who has represented Hill for 17 years, told reporters that the state plans to appeal the court's decision and that he's expecting the case will be heard in the Georgia Supreme Court tomorrow.
"This case is about the law that protects the information about the origin of the drugs being in lethal injections and some of the participants in the lethal injection process," Kammer says. "It's not necessarily about pentobarbital, it's about where are the ingredients coming from. Who is compounding the drug? Right now, all we know is that it's from a compounding pharmacy from out of state. That does not inspire confidence."
Pending the outcome, the Georgia Supreme Court could either uphold or overturn today's ruling. If the latter happens, it may lead to Hill's stay being vacated and open the door again to his execution. The United States Supreme Court still remains a last resort, but for now he remains schedule to die tomorrow night at 7 p.m.
State lawyers, who after the ruling immediately left to file the Georgia Supreme Court appeal, were not available for comment. But you can read the judge's order after the jump:
UPDATE, 8:31 p.m.: Brian Kammer issued the following full statement about today's ruling:
We are deeply relieved that Judge Tusan has stayed tomorrow's scheduled execution of Warren Hill, a man with mental retardation. Judge Tusan rightly found that Georgia's new lethal injection secrecy law goes too far in its extreme secrecy. As Judge Tusan noted, the Act makes it impossible to know whether the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment would be violated in a lethal injection execution, given the secrecy surrounding the protocol.
Warren Hill's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus is still pending with the United States Supreme Court, which is, procedurally, the only court which can now consider the fact of his mental retardation. The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that persons with mental retardation are categorically exempt from capital punishment, so it is important for the Court to hear the new evidence in Mr. Hill's case, that all doctors who have examined him, including three who previously testified for the state, now unanimously agree that Mr, Hill is a person with mental retardation.
We are hopeful that after reviewing Mr. Hill's petition, the Court will remand his case to federal district court for a hearing on the compelling evidence demonstrating that Mr. Hill is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.
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