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Judge halts Georgia execution over injection issue

Warren Lee Hill is shown in this undated Georgia Department of Corrections photograph. REUTERS/Georgia Department of Corrections/Handout
Warren Lee Hill is shown in this undated Georgia Department of Corrections photograph. REUTERS/Georgia Department of Corrections/Handout

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - A Georgia killer who was sentenced to die on Monday for the beating death of a fellow inmate won a temporary reprieve just three hours before his scheduled execution by a judge who cited concerns over the state's new law governing lethal injections.

Warren Lee Hill, 53, had been sentenced to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. (2300 GMT).

But Fulton County Superior Court Judge Gail Tusan stayed the execution until at least Thursday so she could hear more arguments from Hill's lawyers who say the new law is unconstitutional because it shrouds in secrecy a drug used to execute Georgia citizens.

The law, which prohibits the release of information about the lethal drug's manufacturer, was passed in March after the state's cache of the sedative drug expired and national and international pressure made it more difficult for states to obtain it for executions, according to Hill's attorneys.

Hill was set to be executed using a dose of pentobarbital provided to the state by an unnamed manufacturer.

Hill killed a fellow prisoner, Joseph Handspike, in August 1990 by beating him to death. Hill was already serving a life sentence for the 1986 shooting death of his 18-year-old girlfriend, Myra Wright.

In addition to the injection issue, Hill's attorneys argue that he should not be executed under Georgia's law that bans capital punishment for mentally disabled inmates. State prosecutors say that early examinations showed that Hill has the capacity to understand his execution and argue that it should move forward.

According to court records, Hill scored 69 on one intelligence test and in the 70s on other examinations. Mental disability is generally defined as having a score of 70 or below on intelligence tests, Hill's attorneys said.

In February, Hill's lawyers filed affidavits in a Georgia court by three doctors who found Hill competent 13 years ago but who now believe he is mentally disabled.

In the affidavits, one doctor called the earlier evaluation for the state "extremely and unusually rushed" while another said his opinions were "unreliable because of my lack of experience at the time."

A third doctor cited "advances in the understanding of mental retardation" since 2000.

However, in court documents, the state of Georgia said the three state doctors reviewed "extensive materials" before concluding in 2000 that Hill was not mentally disabled, and were thoroughly cross-examined by Hill's attorneys at the time.

The doctors noted in 2000 that Hill had been a recruiter for the U.S. Navy, budgeted his money and was a "father figure" for his siblings, the state said in court documents.

In 1988, Georgia became the first U.S. state to enact a law banning the execution of mentally disabled defendants. But according to death penalty experts, Georgia has perhaps the toughest standard in the nation for defining mental disability, requiring proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Last week, an Atlanta-based non-profit group, All About Developmental Disabilities, called for Georgia to change its death penalty law to lower the standard for proving mental disability.

Hill's execution would be the 19th in the United States this year, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

(Editing by Karen Brooks, Andrew Hay and Leslie Adler)

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