The State of Georgia has set Tuesday, January 27 at 7pm as the execution date for Warren Hill.
Mr. Hill is a mentally disabled man who went to jail for life for shooting his girlfriend. He was sentenced to death after beating a fellow inmate to death.
In 2002 the US Supreme Court ruled in Atkins vs Virginia that it is unconstitutional to condemn mentally disabled people to die. Georgia plans to kill Hill anyway, claiming that his counsel has not proven his disability beyond a reasonable doubt.
Mr. Hill is not innocent, but psychologists have said that he seems to have the mental capacity of an eleven year-old child.
There is still hope in these final hours that his sentence could be commuted from death to life without the possibility of parole. That is not much better, but a life sentence has that one word—life—which makes all the difference.
For the past few months people in my community have been reading and passing around the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, describes over two decades of his work as a lawyer for incarcerated death row inmates, children, women, and mentally disabled people who suffer greatly in the US criminal justice system. He is a powerful storyteller who not only reveals the humanity of people our society has condemned but also shares honestly about his own struggles while trying to defend them.
One of the most common defenses I have heard for the death penalty is, “What if someone killed a member of your family?” Just Mercy offers a response. Stevenson describes the horror of his own grandfather’s murder—a murder that could have left the author embittered and vengeful. Instead, he dared to wonder about the circumstances that could lead someone to become a murderer. Rather than seek vengeance, he is following the path of mercy.
In defending people who are guilty of murder Stevenson turns the question from, “Does this person deserve to die?” to “Do we have a right to kill?”
One of the stories that Stevenson describes is that of George Stinney, a fourteen year old boy who was killed by the state of South Carolina in 1944. He was accused of killing two young girls even though there was no evidence linking him to the crime. Stinney was so small that he had to sit on his own Bible to fit in the electric chair. For seventy years his family has suffered under the weight of this injustice. Just last month, Stinney was exonerated by a South Carolina judge.
Will a Georgia judge review Warren Hill’s case decades from now and say, “We should not have killed this man”? Why not show mercy now while the blood is still warm in his veins?
I would like to invite every person and especially every Christian who supports the death penalty or believes that our criminal justice system is fair for poor people and people of color to get together with a few other people to read and discuss the book Just Mercy. Allow yourself to read their stories and ask yourself, “Do we have a right to kill?”
I would like to invite all people of prayer to join me in praying for:
Warren Hill and his family.
The families of his two murder victims. (The family of his fellow inmate victim is not seeking Hill’s execution and has publicly urged the State of Georgia to show mercy.)
Warren Hill’s lawyer, who has been working for 17 years to preserve Hill’s life.
The people on the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, who are discussing his case today; they have the power to commute his sentence from death to life.
The members of the United States Supreme Court, who have the power to intervene and insist that the State of Georgia not execute a mentally disabled person.
The prison guards, whose job it will be to serve Hill his last meal, strap him to a gurney and witness his death.
The journalists who will witness and report what they see.
The medical doctor who, in violation of the Hippocratic oath, will accept an undisclosed amount of money to inject an undisclosed dose of an undisclosed poison from an undisclosed source into Mr. Hill’s veins.
People who have been given a death sentence in Georgia and the rest of the world.
People who hunger for vengeance.
People who hunger for justice.
People of faith who ardently support capital punishment.
People of faith who ardently oppose capital punishment.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.