Georgia Criminal Appellate Law Blog Offering Insight and Commentary on Appellate Law and Criminal Trial Practice

New Law Spares Life of Warren Lee Hill

Posted in News, Opinions and Analysis

Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic Monthly has a post up on how Georgia’s legislature created a law that spared the life (so far) of Warren Lee Hill, a man that the State has been trying to kill. It’s a must read if you are trying to teach someone the concept of irony.

This past year, the legislature enacted a law that made the identity of companies that provide drugs for execution a state secret. The problem came when Lundbeck, the Denmark Company that makes pentobarbital, a key component in the cocktail of drugs administered during lethal injection, refused to distribute the drug if it would be used in an execution. The supply that the Department of Corrections had on hand was set to expire.

Efforts the Georgia Department of Corrections have undergone to get its hands on drugs to kill Georgia inmates have proven to be a source of embarrassment in the past. In 2011, federal drug agents seized Georgia’s stockpile of sodium thiopental obtained from a shady British supplier that was “operating from the back of a driving school in England.” The stockpile had also come under scrutiny when it was alleged that state corrections officials violated federal law by not registering its shipment of the drug with the DEA.

The obvious way for the Georgia DOC to avoid embarrassment in the future would be to stop obtaining drugs from shady suppliers. The legislature decided not to go that route. Instead, to stop future such stories, the legislature decided to make the identity of the supplier a state secret. Supporters of the bill claimed that the purpose was to prevent the harassment of such companies. An alternate explanation is that secrecy would allow the Department of Corrections to seek out other shady suppliers without the fear of future embarrassment.

When a challenge to the state secrets law was heard in a trial court, “the judge asked the obvious question: How can the executive branch constitutionally conspire with the legislative branch to block the judiciary from considering all the relevant components of a planned execution?” How can the court system evaluate an 8th amendment claim to the death protocols of the DOC if the judge cannot know what those protocols are?

Because the court reporter did not have the transcript prepared in time for the case to make its way to the Supreme Court of Georgia, this matter could not be reviewed before Mr. Hill’s death warrant expired.

This past year I participated in my first hearing before the House Judiciary Committee to speak out against some unrelated legislation. The Atlantic Monthly writer is absolutely correct in his analysis of how the sausage is made. When I spoke and offered comments that I had researched and thought out I might as well have been Charlie Brown’s teacher. By contrast, the representatives of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Counsel were treated like ex officio members of the committee.

In this case, they should have been careful what they wished for.