On November 22, 2011 the Eleventh Circuit held that Georgia’s requirement that criminal defendants prove their mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt constitutional in Hill v. Humphrey.
Georgia was the first state to enact a prohibition against the execution of the mentally retarded. Years later, and after a national consensus adopting this policy was formed, the United States Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that imposing the death penalty on the mentally retarded is unconstitutional in violation of the 8th amendment.
In Hill, the sole question before the en banc Court was “whether the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision in Hill III—holding that Georgia’s reasonable doubt standard does not violate the Eighth Amendment— is contrary to clearly established federal law, as announced in Atkins.” As noted above, the Eleventh Circuit held that it was not.
Atkins appears to be straightforward—the government can’t execute the mentally retarded. However, the Supreme Court did not provide guidelines for how to determine who is mentally retarded nor did it address how to allocate the burden of proving mental retardation. The Eleventh Circuit in Hill relied primarily on the fact that the Supreme Court left these decisions to the states.
The Eleventh Circuit determined that the state standards regarding mental retardation that Georgia did adopt are within reason. Georgia’s definition of “mentally retarded” means (1) having “significantly sub average general intellectual functioning,” (2) “resulting in or associated with impairments in adaptive behavior,” and (3) “which manifested during the developmental period.” The court opined that Georgia’s definition essentially tracks the AARM and APA definitions of mentally retarded, which were mentioned in Atkins.
The court then noted that Georgia’s reasonable doubt standard, to be ruled unconstitutional, would have had to have been contrary to clearly established federal law. The court noted that this is a difficult requirement to meet “because the purpose of AEDPA is to ensure that federal habeas relief functions as a ‘guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems,’ and not as a means of error correction.” The majority did not address the merits of the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard at any length, only noting that it was not discussed in Atkins.
Finally, the court noted that Georgia has sufficient procedural protections in place by allowing a criminal defendant to assert mental retardation and allowing the jury to find the defendant guilty, but mentally retarded.
Justices Martin, Barkett, Marcus, and Wilson dissented. Unlike the majority, the dissent primarily focused on this burden of proof itself and the effects of imposing such a high burden. The dissent opined that the effect of the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard would be contrary to the purpose of the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins—that Georgia’s beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard would result in the execution of the mentally retarded.