Supreme Court refuses to block controversial Georgia execution

Road map of Georgia with a blue pin sticking in it.
Georgia Executes Robert Wayne Holsey

The state of Georgia executed Robert Wayne Holsey late in the evening December 9, despite his attorneys’ arguments that his intellectual disabilities made him ineligible for the death penalty.

The execution came hours after the Supreme Court denied a petition for a last-minute stay of the execution. Justices Breyer and Sotomayor voted to grant the application, but were overruled by the other justices, according to the order denying the stay.

In 1992, Holsey allegedly robbed a convenience store. After the store clerk called the police, Holsey was pulled over in his vehicle. As Sheriff’s Deputy Will Robinson approached the vehicle, Holsey allegedly shot him in the head.

Five years later, a jury sentenced Holsey to death for Robinson’s murder. His attorney in the trial did not present any evidence of Holsey’s disabilities, despite evidence that his IQ may be as low as 70. It has since become public that his attorney was drinking a quart of vodka every night during Holsey’s trial and is serving a 10-year prison sentence for stealing $116,000 from a client.

In its 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of death penalty against people with severe intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. However, the Supreme Court left it to the states to create their own rules for determining who is ineligible for capital punishment under this standard.

Last May, the Supreme Court, in Hall v. Florida, struck down Florida’s death penalty statute, on the basis that it created an “unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.” Under Florida’s standard, people with an IQ below 70 were ineligible for capital punishment, while people with an IQ above 70 qualified, regardless of other evidence of their disabilities.

The state of Georgia uses the nation’s most rigorous standard for measuring intellectual disability. Under Georgia’s statute, people with intellectual disabilities must prove they are ineligible for the death penalty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the highest legal standard in the criminal justice system.

“By making it virtually impossible to prove intellectual disability, the Georgia standard reduces the Eighth Amendment’s ban on executing people with intellectual disabilities to a nullity,” Brian Kammer of the nonprofit Georgia Resource Center, one of Mr. Holsey’s lawyers, said in a statement, according to the New York Times.