Convicted Killer Asks Sixth Circuit to Vacate Death Sentence

CINCINNATI (CN) – A death-row inmate convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of a 12-year-old boy argued before a Sixth Circuit panel Thursday that his intellectual disabilities render his sentence unconstitutional.

The Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati, home of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

Danny Hill was sentenced to death in February 1986 for the killing of Raymond Fife, after a three-judge panel found him guilty of kidnapping, rape and murder.

According to court documents, Fife was found in a wooded field in Warren, Ohio, in September 1985, after he was kidnapped, beaten, sexually assaulted, set on fire and left for dead while on his way to a Boy Scouts meeting.

Hill was charged with the boy’s murder, along with co-defendant Timothy Combs, who was 18 at the time.

Combs, sentenced to life in prison after being convicted, died in prison in November 2018.

Hill first filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court in 1996, and most recently argued that his death sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, and that he is ineligible for execution because of the 2002 Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia.

The nation’s high court ruled in Atkins that criminal defendants with intellectual disabilities cannot be sentenced to death, but also allowed states to determine which defendants qualify as intellectually disabled.

In an exhaustive, 101-page opinion written in 2014, U.S. District Judge John Adams denied Hill’s petition for habeas relief and upheld the state court’s finding that he is not intellectually disabled.

Adams’ opinion contains a history of Hill’s education and upbringing. While he struggled in school from age 5 and was placed in special education classes, had an IQ that placed him in the third percentile, and was easily manipulated by those around him, the federal judge did not grant his petition.

“Although the court recognizes that a reasonable trial-court judge may have come to a different conclusion based on the evidence presented at Hill’s Atkins hearing, given the extremely deferential standard for relief under the Antiterrorism and Death Penalty Act, this court cannot hold that Hill has rebutted with clear and convincing evidence the presumed correctness of the Ohio appellate court’s factual determination that Hill is not intellectually disabled,” wrote Adams, a George W. Bush appointee.

The case was argued in the Sixth Circuit in 2014, where a panel found Hill was intellectually disabled under the standards set forth in Moore v. Texas.

However, the case was eventually sent to the Supreme Court, which held the Cincinnati-based appeals court erred when it applied Moore because the case was not decided until long after the state court decisions in Hill’s case.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Sixth Circuit earlier this year for further arguments, which were held Thursday.

Attorney Vicki Werneke argued on behalf of Hill and told the panel that the process used by the state courts to find her client is not intellectually disabled was “an extreme malfunction in fact-finding.”

Werneke claimed the state courts improperly focused on Hill’s behavior after he was incarcerated, instead of his mental capacity at the time he committed the crime in 1985.

The attorney said the highly structured setup of a prison allows someone with Hill’s deficiencies to thrive, and can falsely give the outward appearance of a person with standard mental capacity.

U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay, an appointee of Bill Clinton, asked how he and the other judges could find a way to grant Hill relief after the remand by the Supreme Court.

Werneke cited section 2254(d)(2) of federal habeas law, and said the panel could find there was an unreasonable application of the facts in the case and not the relevant state laws.

Attorney Mike Hendershot argued on behalf of the state of Ohio, and told the panel that his counterpart had misinterpreted section 2254(d)(2).

Hendershot said this statute can only be implemented by the appeals court if the evidence in the record “compels the opposite conclusion the state court reached.”

He went on to say that although the decision was close in state court, the fact that two qualified experts determined Hill is not intellectually disabled prevents the application of 2254(d)(2) in this case

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Gilbert Merritt, an appointee of Jimmy Carter who participated in the arguments via video conference, repeatedly asked both attorneys if the case could be sent back to state court.

Hendershot told Merritt the only avenue for state court relief would be for Hill to file a post-conviction habeas claim that would proceed alongside the current case.

Both attorneys declined to comment after the hearing.

U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Moore, another Clinton appointee, rounded out the panel.

No timetable has been set for the court’s opinion.

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