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Monday, February 17, 2014

Georgia's Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Warren Hill appeal

Supreme Court of Georgia Justice Carol Hunstein looks on as Justice David Nahmias asks a question to the states lawyer. The stakes were high this morning during Warren Hills appeal.
  • Joeff Davis
  • Supreme Court of Georgia Justice Carol Hunstein looks on as Justice David Nahmias asks a question to the state's lawyer. The stakes were high this morning during Warren Hill's appeal.
Georgia's highest court today took a closer look at arguments over a controversial state law that could determine the fate of death-row inmate Warren Lee Hill.

Earlier this morning, the Georgia Supreme Court heard the state's appeal to overturn a stay of execution that a lower court granted Hill last July. Seven months ago, state Attorney General Sam Olens filed a petition for immediate review following Fulton County Superior Court Judge Gail Tusan's decision to indefinitely block Hill's execution because of concerns over the state's new lethal-injection secrecy law.

Hill, who has an IQ of 70, was first sentenced to die in 1991 after he killed inmate Joseph Handspike in his sleep with a nail-studded board. He was serving a life sentence in prison for murdering his then 18-year-old girlfriend Myra Wright.

Prior to today's appeal, the justices asked both sides to address the state's current pentobarbital supplies, the state law's constitutionality, Tusan's authority on the matter as a Fulton judge, and whether her stay was ultimately warranted. ‎

Georgia Assistant Attorney General Sabrina Graham makes her argument as Warren Hill attorney Sachin Varghese listens to the courts proceedings.
  • Joeff Davis
  • Georgia Assistant Attorney General Sabrina Graham makes her argument as Warren Hill attorney Sachin Varghese listens to the court's proceedings.
Assistant Attorney General Sabrina Graham defended the state's lethal-injection secrecy law's constitutionality. She argued the measure hadn't limited Hill's ability to mount a legal defense in court. The state law, which Gold Dome lawmakers passed last year, allows state officials to conceal details about where Department of Corrections officials obtain execution drugs.

Hill attorney Sachin Varghese called for greater transparency related to how the state conducts its executions. In his client's case, the lack of knowledge regarding who or where the state's lethal-injection supplies comes from makes it difficult to assess if Hill's Eighth Amendment rights, which protect him from cruel and unusual punishment, were violated. If drugs are improperly administered, he argued, the death-row inmate could be subjected to unnecessary suffering in what's supposed to be a relatively painless process.

In addition, both sides debated the importance of compounding pharmacies - labs that create their own drugs and are often unregulated by the Federal Drug Administration - to the current appeal. Varghese argued that the varying degree of state regulations for such pharmacies made it difficult to know the full details needed for a proper legal defense. On the other hand, Graham said no proper case had been made regarding possible cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Justices will now take time to review both arguments in the complicated case. SCOG spokeswoman Jane Hansen tells CL that they will likely make a final ruling in the next "four to six" months.

This mornings hearing was crowded with onlookers. The case has drawn national attention to Georgias death penalty.
  • Joeff Davis
  • This morning's hearing was crowded with onlookers. The case has drawn national attention to Georgia's death penalty.

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