07/15/2013 12:38 EDT | Updated 09/14/2013 05:12 EDT

Mentally disabled man avoids execution in Georgia for third time

WASHINGTON - Amid the cacophony resulting from the George Zimmerman verdict in Florida this weekend, another startling legal saga has been playing out in nearby Georgia, where a mentally disabled man was granted yet another stay of execution on Monday.

Warren Lee Hill, deemed "mentally retarded" by state doctors, has been serving a life sentence for killing his girlfriend in 1986.

That sentence was upgraded to a death sentence after he killed his cellmate in 1990 by bludgeoning the man with a nail-studded board as he slept. Hill was scheduled to die by lethal injection late Monday, but a judge temporarily stayed the execution after Lee's lawyers raised concerns about the drug to be administered to their client.

Hill's lawyers have long argued that because he's mentally disabled — the death-row inmate has been found to have an IQ of 70 — his execution is illegal. Executing mentally disabled offenders is prohibited by both Georgia law and a 2002 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled that executing those with a cognitive impairment is a “cruel and unusual” punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. constitution.

The state has argued, meantime, that Hill, 53, has failed to prove he's mentally disabled.

Hill's supporters rallied across the state on Monday asking for the delay as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to hear the case.

“It is extremely inhumane to execute the mentally retarded," said Edward DuBose, head of the Georgia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“The three doctors who originally testified against him have retracted and have all acknowledged that Warren Lee Hill is mentally retarded,” said DuBose, who added that the slain cellmate's family has also publicly said they do not want to see Hill executed.

Hill is black. There are more than 3,000 inmates currently on death row in the United States, according to federal and state statistics, and more than 40 per cent of them are black men.

Hill has now come within hours of being executed three times, but on each occasion was spared by last-minute court orders — one of which came so close to the wire that he'd already eaten his last meal.

Brian Kammer, one of Hill's lawyers, expressed relief on Monday that yet another judge stayed his execution.

"Ultimately, we are hopeful that the United States Supreme Court will hear Mr. Hill's pending petition for writ of habeas corpus, and will have the opportunity to consider the important new evidence in this case — that there is unanimous consensus among all the doctors who have examined Mr. Hill, including three who previously testified for the state, that he is a person with mental retardation, and thus ineligible for the death penalty," Kammer said in a statement.

Hill's lawyers argued late last week that a new Geogia statute called the Lethal Injection Secrecy Act violates their client's constitutional rights because it deliberately conceals how the drug to be used for his execution was manufactured and obtained.

The drug — Pentobarbital — has been increasingly difficult to obtain in recent years because its American manufacturer stopped making it in 2011 due to concerns about its use in executions.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution also reported that small local pharmacies now provide the drugs for lethal injections in Georgia because European drug companies refuse to allow their drugs to be used in executions. Hill's lawyers allege that Georgia officials might have acquired the drug illegally.

"Today, the court found that more time is needed to explore Mr. Hill's complaint, which raises serious concerns about the extreme secrecy surrounding the execution process in Georgia, and the new Lethal Injection Secrecy Act, which took effect one day before Georgia issued a death warrant for Mr. Hill," Kammer said.

"At this time, there is far too much we do not know about how the state intends to proceed in this, the most extreme act a government can take against a citizen."