Georgia court reaffirms high execution standard

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News from Georgia

Georgia remains the only state in the nation requiring individuals to prove they have a mental disability “beyond a reasonable doubt” to avoid execution in capital punishment cases, following a 6-1 decision Monday from the state Supreme Court.

The reasonable doubt standard is the justice system’s most stringent standard in criminal proceedings. All other states where the death penalty remains legalized require a lower burden of proof when proving an individual has a mental disability.

The case is also currently being heard by the full court in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 2002 for people with mental disabilities, stating that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The court left the standard for proving whether an individual has a mental disability to the states.

“Georgia, among other states with heightened standards for defining and proving mental retardation, was counted by the Supreme Court as being part of the national consensus regarding the treatment of mentally retarded defendants, and it seems to us entirely illogical that Georgia could have been part of the consensus dictating a categorical rule and yet somehow simultaneously stand in violation of that same rule,” wrote Justice Harold Melton for the majority.

In 1988, Georgia became the first state to end the death penalty for people with mental disabilities.

In his dissent, Justice Robert Benham said the decision would inevitably lead to unconstitutional executions.

“Are we so focused on maximizing the absolute penalty of death that we would risk wrongfully executing someone with a clinically identified mental disability?” he wrote. “To do so is an impermissible violation of our Constitution and a senseless assault against morality and human decency.”

If the standard had been struck down, about 10 people with mental disabilities who failed to meet the standard may have received a retrial, according to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The decision, which also remanded the individual, Alphonso Stripling, to trial court for a retrial, reaffirmed a similar ruling upholding the standard by the state Supreme Court in 2003.

In 1991, Stripling, was convicted murdered two individuals at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Douglasville, Georgia three years prior. In 2003, a trial court vacated his sentence because the state had suppressed certain evidence pertaining his mental disability.

The trial court then ruled that Georgia’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is unconstitutional, as did a three-judge panel on the 11th Circuit in November 2010.