To Every Intemperate Peter: Warren Lee Hill and the Failure of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles

chris-new-southerner2KAIROS AND CRISIS

Contributing Editor

The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles is the last hope for clemency that Georgia’s death row inmates have; it is, supposedly, a fail-safe of our criminal justice system, an executive arm of the government meant to check potential errors of the legislature and judiciary—moral errors included. It answers to no one but God.

Whether or not it hears God’s questions is another matter, though, as this board has granted clemency to only eight death row inmates since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty, while in that time Georgia has executed nearly seven times as many.

Thomas Merton defined kairos as “the time of urgent and providential decision,” a time that involves the risk of crisis. This sense of kairos, particularly here in the South, has much if not everything to do with race and religion. These things are bound to our identities as Southerners, whether accurately or stereotypically. They have been wellsprings of goodness and grace, and they have suffered as objects of hatred and ignorance. Always they have required response. Kairos and Crisis hopes to be one such response, seeking nothing less than healing for our places, our neighbors and ourselves.

On July 16, not too long before I began writing these words, the Georgia parole board denied clemency to Warren Lee Hill, a death row inmate expert witnesses and a judge have found to be intellectually disabled—or “mentally retarded,” to use the crass term our legal system still employs. Considering that it is unconstitutional to execute people deemed “mentally retarded,” it would seem that this would have been the perfect time for the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency. And given that the victim’s family supports clemency for Hill, and that jurors in the case have said they would have handed down life without parole if it would have been an option, and that the Georgia Corrections Commissioner said just this week that mental illness ought to be decriminalized, it would seem the decision for clemency was not only the right choice but also an easy one.

The board stands, however, by the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has left it to the states to define “mental retardation,” and the board seems to like Georgia’s definition well enough. Georgia is the only state in the U.S. that says “mental retardation,” at least as a defense against execution, must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Most states use preponderance of evidence—or “more likely than not”—as the standard. In most other states, then, Hill wouldn’t be facing execution in a matter of days, an execution approved by a board established to be a safeguard against this kind of moral ruin, to say nothing of unconstitutionality.

The current members of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles—three white, two black, and all male—occupy a tower suite on Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, a road named for the Martin Luther King Jr. you’re thinking of: the reverend, social activist, civil rights leader, visionary, prophet, martyr. Atlanta’s son and shining light. The man who said, among other things, that “violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace.”

It would seem, then, that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, along with the state government it represents, is unaware of one of two things: It is either unaware that sticking a pentobarbital-filled needle into a human being’s vein (a human being with an intellectual disability, no less) in order to kill, is a form of grave violence, or it is unaware of the sick irony in upholding the state’s right to use such violence from its office space in a tower on a street named for a man who said what I’ve quoted him as saying, as well as this: “A voice, echoing through the corridors of time, says to every intemperate Peter, ‘Put up thy sword.’ History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that failed to follow Christ’s command.”

Georgia exalts its sword, though, recast as a needle that slashes no servant’s ear, draws no blood, but humanely collapses the lungs and stops the hearts of people like Brandon Rhode, revived by the state from a nearly successful suicide attempt only to be executed days later, or Troy Davis, whose guilt was at best doubtful. Now Warren Lee Hill, who has an intellectual disability, stands before it. Now Christ calls from the garden, through the corridors of time, once more. But Georgia, unlike Peter, does not care for the wreckage it will leave in its failure to listen, and stands ready for vengeance as Christ walks to the gurney again.

Note: At the time of this writing, Warren Lee Hill was scheduled to be executed on July 18. Now, due to a change in Georgia’s lethal injection protocol, his execution has been rescheduled for July 23. There is still hope that the U.S. Supreme Court, which once refused to hear this case, may intervene at the last minute. For updates, please follow Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

All quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s The Strength to Love (1963), a collection of sermons he gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

New Southerner contributing editor Christopher Martin lives his wife and their children in the northwest Georgia piedmont, where he studies creative writing at Kennesaw State University and edits the online journal Flycatcher. Chris is author of the poetry chapbook A Conference of Birds, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous places, such as Shambhala Sun, Still: The Journal, Drafthorse, Poecology, Ruminate Magazine and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia.

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