Federal Habeas Corpus - Death Penalty - Eleventh Circuit Rejects Challenge to Georgia's "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" Standard for Defendants' Mental Retardation Claims

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FEDERAL HABEAS CORPUS--DEATH PENALTY--ELEVENTH CIRCUIT REJECTS CHALLENGE TO GEORGIA'S "BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT" STANDARD FOR DEFENDANTS' MENTAL RETARDATION CLAIMS.--Hill v. Humphrey, 662 F.3d 1335 (11th Cir. 2011) (en banc).

In 2002, the Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia (1) that a "national consensus ha[d] developed against" executing the mentally retarded (2)and that continuing the practice would violate the Eighth Amendment. (3) Recognizing the potential disagreement among jurisdictions as to what would constitute mental retardation, (4) the Court tasked the states with determining how best to implement the constitutional imperative not to execute the mentally retarded. (5)

Georgia currently imposes the toughest burden of proof on defendants (6): they must prove mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt. (7) Recently, in Hill v. Humphrey, (8) the Eleventh Circuit held that the Georgia standard was not an unreasonable application of the federal law established in Atkins. (9) The holding illustrates a recent trend among federal courts: in-terpreting the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (10)(AEDPA) as imposing a practically insurmountable burden on criminal de-fendants seeking habeas relief.11 This hyper-deferential posture poses a particularly significant barrier to potentially mentally retarded defendants, like the one in Humphrey, who stand to lose the constitutional rights that Atkins was meant to protect.

In 1990, while incarcerated for murder, Warren Lee Hill killed a fellow inmate, a crime for which he was sentenced to death. (12) After losing an initial appeal, in which he did not raise mental retardation claims, (13) Hill filed a state habeas petition that included such assertions. (14) The state habeas court found that Hill had not proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he met the state's mental retardation criteria and thus denied his petition. (15)

After Atkins, Hill asked the state habeas court to reconsider his case. The court granted the motion and decided that his mental retardation claim should be evaluated under a preponderance of the evidence standard; applying that standard, the court found Hill mentally retarded. (16)The state appealed, and the Georgia Supreme Court reversed, finding that "Georgia's reasonable doubt standard was constitutionally acceptable for mental retardation claims." (17) The court noted that such a procedural hurdle reflected a carefully calibrated balance determined by the state assembly, and it was inclined to defer to the legislature's judgment. (18) In response, Hill filed a federal habeas petition, claiming that the Georgia burden of proof ran afoul of Atkins's Eighth Amendment prohibition on executing the mentally retarded. (19) After the federal district court denied relief, a divided Eleventh Circuit panel found in Hill's favor, deciding that Georgia's standard of re-view eviscerated Atkins. (20) Months later, a majority of the court voted to vacate the panel opinion and rehear the case en banc. (21)

The en banc Eleventh Circuit affirmed the holding of the district court. Writing for the majority, Judge Hull22 focused on the stringency of the standard of review for AEDPA claims. According to the relevant provisions of the Act, habeas relief should be granted only if the state court decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." (23) Judge Hull listed ten decisions since 2010 where the Supreme Court had reversed appellate court decisions for being insufficiently deferential to state court determinations. (24) She stressed that "even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable." (25) Synthesizing the Supreme Court's AEDPA decisions, Judge Hull said that, to prevail, Hill needed to show: (1) that a Supreme Court holding clearly established a federal law and (2) that "no fair-minded jurist" could have reached the Georgia Supreme Court's decision. …