“No defendant has ever borne this burden”: In Georgia’s verdict on the demise sentence

It’s not about challenging your guilt. It was agreed that Rodney Renia Young traveled across state lines in 2008 to kill his ex-girlfriend’s son.

Whether or not he should die for his actions, however, has erupted between the American Civil Liberties Union and the courts as battles continue to prove Young’s intellectual disability – and have it recognized by the Georgia judicial system with the exception of the death penalty .

Young’s most recent fight, an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, ended with the court upholding his death sentence and finding in Young v. State that Young was unable to prove his intellectual disability beyond doubt.

Chief Justice Harold Melton, Georgia Supreme Court. (Photo: John Disney / ALM)

“We are not being asked to make a political statement about the wisdom of the Georgian burden of proof, and that would be beyond the constitutional authority of this court,” wrote Harold Melton, Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, in a plurality opinion. “Instead, we are called to apply the Georgia Constitution and the United States Constitution.”

It is a Catch-22 that the ACLU attributes to the state’s interpretation of the 2002 US Supreme Court decision in Atkins v Virginia. In it, the country’s highest court granted discretion to states to develop “appropriate ways” to enforce constitutional restrictions on the execution of the mentally retarded after it was found to be in violation of the US Constitution.

“No defendant has ever overcome this burden and successfully demonstrated his or her intellectual disability,” said Brian Stull, senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project. “Georgia’s uniquely high and stressful burden means that people with intellectual disabilities will be executed, just as Warren Hill was executed in 2015, although all the experts who interviewed him confirmed his intellectual disability.”

“No defendant has ever borne this burden”: In Georgia’s verdict on the demise sentence Randal M. McGinley, District Attorney for the Alcovy Circuit. Courtesy photo

Across the aisle, Randal McGinley, District Attorney for Alcovy Circuit, helped represent the state.

“Although Young and his attorneys are deciding whether to seek review by the United States Supreme Court, I would not be surprised if a motion for a certificate is filed asking that court to resolve the legal issue of the burden of proof in Regarding intellectual disability, ”said McGinley. “However, all three opinions (the plurality, consensus, and disagreement) make it clear that trials on this issue followed both the Georgia Supreme Court and the United States.”

“I would obediently accept”

The Georgia Supreme Court Presiding Judge David E. Nahmias welcomed the escalation of the case.

Presiding Judge David Nahmias, Georgia Supreme Court. Presiding Judge David Nahmias, Georgia Supreme Court.

In his special approval, Nahmias said, “Of course I (and the majority of this court) could be wrong. Young is welcome to apply to the United States Supreme Court for a certificate to tell us we are wrong. I would obediently accept such a decision and apply it directly. “

Nahmias argued that in the more than 30 years since the law dealing with such cases was passed, there have been developments in the science of intellectual disability. He welcomed Young and those who stood up on his behalf “to try to get the Georgian people through their elected representatives to reconsider the Statute”.

“If the General Assembly takes another humane step in relation to potentially mentally retarded defendants, I would welcome this change,” wrote Nahmias. “In the meantime, however, I see no compelling reason for this court to override our established precedent on this issue.”

Shared courtyard

Rather than deterring, the court’s split decision fueled the ACLU’s drive to fight for Young’s release from the death penalty.

“[The] The ruling goes against the reasoning of recent rulings by the US Supreme Court prohibiting states from maintaining proceedings that pose an unacceptable risk to the execution of people with intellectual disabilities, ”said Stull.

Judge Charles Bethel agreed and stood alone in his disagreement.

Justice Charles Bethel, Georgia Supreme Court. Justice Charles Bethel, Georgia Supreme Court.

Bethel highlighted Stripling versus State in 2011 and Head versus Hill in 2003.

In these rulings, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected arguments that the Atkins Supreme Court ruling made the unconstitutional standard unconstitutional due to the lack of government instructions on how to apply a particular standard of evidence to intellectual disability claims.

Bethel said Young’s suggestion that subsequent Supreme Court rulings “cast doubt on” these earlier rulings and lead to a different conclusion.

“So the question we face is whether Georgia’s requirement that a defendant be able to provide unequivocal evidence of his or her own intellectual disability poses an ‘unacceptable risk of a mentally retarded person being executed,'” said Bethel. “Here the existence of such a risk seems obvious.”

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Death, Mental Illness, and the US Supreme Court