UN expert urges US authorities to stop execution of two persons with disabilities

Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns. Photo: Jean-Marc Ferré

17 July 2012 – An independent United Nations human rights expert has urged United States authorities to stop the execution of two people with psychosocial disabilities who are scheduled to be put to death tomorrow in the states of Georgia and Texas.

“It is a violation of death penalty safeguards to impose capital punishment on individuals suffering from psychosocial disabilities,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns.

“It is also contrary to the United States Supreme Court ruling Atkins v Virginia, which held that such executions are unconstitutional,” added the expert, who reports in an independent and unpaid capacity to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Warren Hill and Yokamon Laneal Hearn were convicted of murder in separate incidents, and the convictions have been the subject of a number of legal appeals based on the defendants’ mental health, according to a news release issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

However, their death sentences were upheld despite claims that the defendants had psychosocial disabilities, and the existence of a federal ban on such executions. On Monday, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected clemency for Mr. Hill.

Mr. Heyns called on the state authorities “to demonstrate the moral and legal leadership expected of the strong democracy that the United States is by commuting the death sentences of Hill and Hearn, and show the importance it gives to the fundamental right to life.”

In relation to Mr. Hill’s case, the Special Rapporteur voiced particular concern that Georgia is now the only US state that requires proof of what it calls ‘mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt,’ rather than a preponderance of the evidence as in other jurisdictions, although Georgia was the first state in the US to recognize that such defendants should not be executed.

“This higher standard of proof, making it very difficult to demonstrate that one actually suffers from a psychosocial disability may, I fear, mean that Mr. Hill, scheduled for execution tomorrow, would be a fatality in violation of international as well as domestic law,” Mr. Heyns said.

Regarding Mr. Hearn’s scheduled execution in Texas, the expert noted that “there is evidence to suggest that he also suffers from psychosocial disabilities. This includes an expert opinion that he is affected by structural brain dysfunction likely to have been caused by his mother’s alcohol abuse during pregnancy.”

According to the OHCHR news release, information received by the expert raises issues of a lack of a proper investigation, including mitigating factors, arbitrariness and non-compliance with fair trial safeguards that potentially constitute violations of international standards applicable to the death penalty.


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