A Georgia inmate on death row is taking his case to the U.S. Supreme Court after the state’s highest court upheld his punishment this week despite his claims that he is mentally challenged.
Rodney Young, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, is arguing that Georgia — unlike other states — requires convicts to reach a higher burden of proof of intellectual disability in order to avoid being put to death.
“Georgia is the only state in the nation that requires defendants with intellectual disability to prove this disability beyond a reasonable doubt in order to spare their life,” said Brian Stull, an attorney for the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project.
“Georgia’s uniquely high and onerous burden means that people with intellectual disability will be executed,” Mr. Stull added.
Young was convicted of murdering his girlfriend’s son in 2008 in a planned attack in an attempt to win her back after she left him.
He tried to scare her and lead detectives into believing a mob was after whoever was living in the house where she and her son were staying in the hopes she would move back in with him.
The Georgia Supreme Court upheld his death sentence Tuesday, ruling that the state’s death penalty laws are not unconstitutional and that Young was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Young’s lawyers said the Georgia standard of proof for showing a defendant suffers from an intellectual disability violates Supreme Court precedent, pointing to Atkins v. Virginia, a 2002 case in which the court ruled 6-3 that executing a mentally challenged defendant is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Mr. Stull also said that in the past seven years the high court has ruled a number of times that states can’t have procedures that create an unacceptable risk for people with intellectual disabilities when facing execution.
“Georgia’s requirement that persons with [intellectual disability] prove their disability beyond a reasonable doubt — the highest burden of proof in our legal system — plainly creates an unacceptable risk,” he said.
Most states, Mr. Stull said, require a defendant to show only some proof of an intellectual disability — not the high standard Georgia mandates.
At Young’s trial, his lawyers had former staff members from his high school testify that Young was in special education classes. They estimated his IQ must be between 60 and 69.
A spokesperson from the Georgia attorney general’s office said the office does not comment on pending litigation.
The ACLU points to other inmates in Georgia who have also been put to death despite intellectual disabilities.
Warren Hill was executed in 2015 after killing his cellmate. He was in prison with a life sentence for shooting and killing his girlfriend, but he was sentenced to death after killing his cellmate.
There were arguments that he suffered from an intellectual disability, but the state of Georgia moved to execute him despite calls from advocates to halt the punishment.
John Blume, a criminal law professor at Cornell University, said that, given the Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority, it is unlikely the justices will grant a review in Young’s case.
“But Georgia is an outlier on this so it is not completely out of the question that they may reel them in,” Mr. Blume said.
Mr. Stull, though, remains confident the high court will review the case.
“Because the court has been clear that the Eighth Amendment forbids state procedures for determining [intellectual disability] that create an unacceptable risk of execution for persons with [intellectual disability], and Georgia’s law does just that, we feel confident this petition will be of great interest to the court,” he said.