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Death row: UN expert urges US authorities to stop execution of two persons with psychosocial disabilities

GENEVA (17 July 2012) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, urged the United States Government and those of Georgia and Texas “to demonstrate leadership and prevent the execution of two individuals with psychosocial disabilities,” due to be put to death tomorrow, Wednesday 18 July, in the states of Georgia and Texas.

“It is a violation of death penalty safeguards to impose capital punishment on individuals suffering from psychosocial disabilities,” warned Mr. Heyns. “It is also contrary to the US Supreme Court ruling Atkins v Virginia which held that such executions are unconstitutional.”

Warren Hill and Yokamon Laneal Hearn were both convicted of murder in separate incidents. The convictions have been the subject of a number of legal appeals based on the defendants’ mental health; however, their death sentences were upheld despite claims that the defendants had psychosocial disabilities, and the existence of a federal ban on such executions. On Monday, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected clemency for Mr. Hill.

The UN independent expert called on the state authorities “to demonstrate the moral and legal leadership expected of the strong democracy that the United States is by commuting the death sentences of Hill and Hearn, and show the importance it gives to the fundamental right to life.” Mr. Heyns underscored that there is also a risk that “other Governments would follow the same approach in justifying the imposition of the death penalty for people suffering from psychosocial disabilities rather than applying a more humane punitive measure.”

In respect of Mr. Hill’s case, the expert is particularly disturbed that Georgia is now the only state in the United States that requires proof of what it calls ‘mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt,’ rather than a preponderance of the evidence as in other jurisdictions, although Georgia was the first state in the US to recognize that such defendants should not be executed.

“This higher standard of proof, making it very difficult to demonstrate that one actually suffers from a psychosocial disability may, I fear, mean that Mr. Hill, scheduled for execution tomorrow, would be a fatality in violation of international as well as domestic law,” he stressed.

Regarding Mr. Hearn’s scheduled execution in Texas, the human rights expert noted that “there is evidence to suggest that he also suffers from psychosocial disabilities. This includes an expert opinion that he is affected by structural brain dysfunction likely to have been caused by his mother’s alcohol abuse during pregnancy.”

Information received by the Special Rapporteur raises issues of a lack of a proper investigation including mitigating factors, arbitrariness and non-compliance with fair trial safeguards that potentially constitute violations of international standards applicable to the death penalty.

Christof Heyns, from South Africa, was appointed by the Human Rights Council as Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in August 2010. He is Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria and Co-director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa. He is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/executions/index.htm

UN Human Rights, Country Page – USA: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/USIndex.aspx

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