Accidental Georgia Law Concerning Disability and the Death Penalty Makes its Way to the Supreme Court

Published January 10, 2022

A carelessly drafted 1988 Georgia law regarding intellectual disability and the death penalty has been the focus of renewed attention as a challenge to the law makes its way to the US Supreme Court. The law was meant to ban the execution of intellectually disabled people, but due to some hastily composed language, the law instead makes it more difficult for defendants with disabilities to prove their disability. Specifically, the law asks defendants to prove their disability in a court of law “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This differs from similar laws in other states in that those laws ask for the defendant to prove their disability simply with a preponderance of evidence, not without a doubt. One of the drafters of the law, Jack Martin, freely admits that such a stringent standard was not intended but that, unfortunately, a key clause was accidentally placed in the wrong spot.

While such word choice at first glance may not seem to matter much to a casual reader, from a legal standpoint, there are crucial consequences to the language. Namely, in other states, defendants must prove disability by showing only that it is more likely than not while Georgians must prove it without a doubt. This sets up a scenario where more often than not, an intellectually impaired defendant will face capital punishment. Regarding prosecutorial standards in a broad sense, it is typically understood that the court’s aim is to never risk imprisoning one innocent citizen even at the cost of allowing a few guilty ones to roam free. Yet the Georgia law takes the opposite approach, setting up a situation that seems to prefer to risk executing impaired defendants rather than risk any one individual escaping the death penalty. The statistics bear this out: In Georgia, no individual has succeeded in proving intellectual disability (and thus they remain facing the death penalty) while about 1/3 of defendants in the rest of the country have succeeded in doing so, according to the ACLU.

And now the lawfulness of the 1988 language will soon be decided by the US Supreme Court. The case being brought before the highest court is that of Rodney Young, an intellectually disabled Georgia man who was convicted of killing the son of his estranged girlfriend in 2012. During Mr. Young’s school years, he was classified by teachers and staff as “intellectually disabled.” Staff members testified as to Young’s disability at proceedings to establish his impairment, but the jury found that the presented evidence did not meet Georgia’s standards of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The precedent nationally for such cases is the 2002 Supreme Court decision Atkins v. Virginia which ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits capital punishment for people with disabilities, yet the Atkins decision also gave states discretion in deciding who precisely qualifies as intellectually disabled. And because of the language in the Georgia law requiring a burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, Mr. Young could not even be recognized as having a disability in order to be protected by the Eighth Amendment as per the Atkins decision. Of note, however, moving forward into new hearings will be two post-Atkins decisions in 2014 (Hall v. Florida) and 2017 (Moore v. Texas) that struck down measures that create an unacceptable risk of intellectually disabled individuals facing the death penalty.

The ACLU, who represents Mr. Young, will be taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court after the Georgia Supreme Court decided to uphold the state law on June 24th, 2021. But Justice Charles J. Bethel of the Georgia Supreme Court dissented against the court’s opinion citing the 2014 and 2017 Supreme Court decisions, saying that the law as it reads currently creates “unacceptable” risk that a person with an intellectual disability could be executed. With the Supreme Court having a notably different composition than it did during Atkins in 2002 or even during the 2014 and 2017 decisions, it will be interesting to observe how the court interprets the language of the Georgia law in the context of those cases and how it applies that interpretation to Mr. Young’s case.

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