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Divided Sixth Circuit upholds death penalty in child murder case

Danny Hill claimed he is intellectually disabled, which makes him ineligible for capital punishment due to a 2002 landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

CINCINNATI (CN) — A divided Sixth Circuit en banc court on Friday upheld the death penalty for a man convicted of raping and killing a 12-year-old boy.

Danny Hill was convicted in 1986 and sentenced to death for killing Raymond Fife. Hill argued that he was intellectually disabled, making him ineligible for the death penalty pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins vs. Virginia.

The Sixth Circuit’s 9-7 decision overturned an unanimous decision by a three-judge panel from the same court in May 2020. The state of Ohio appealed, prompting the en banc hearing last December.

The majority found that Hill’s claim under Atkins did not meet the standards of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and specifically rejected his claim that the state’s court evaluation of his intellectual disability during his appeal rather than when the crime was committed violated federal law.

“If intellectual disability is not a transient condition, then the outcome should not change if the court evaluates a defendant’s abilities at the time of the crime or at the time of a later Atkins hearing,” Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote for the majority. “Thus, we find Hill’s argument that Atkins requires evaluating a defendant’s intellectual abilities at the time of the offense to be unpersuasive.”

The majority also found that Hill’s claims of ineffective counsel fell flat. Hill claimed his attorney, Gregory Meyers, should have withdrawn as his attorney due to Hill’s distrust of Meyers and the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.

“Hill has not demonstrated that Meyers, who was not employed by the OPD during Hill’s trial and first state postconviction appeal, should have realized before he filed his initial appearance that Hill’s past disagreements with OPD lawyers could have prevented Meyers from developing a working attorney-client relationship with Hill,” Smith Gibbons wrote.

Circuit Judge Karen Moore, in writing the dissent, noted that Hill had been diagnosed as intellectually disabled ten times over the course of his life and that the Ohio courts classified him as mildly to moderately retarded.

“No person looking at this record could reasonably deny that Hill is intellectually disabled under Atkins,” Moore wrote. “In holding otherwise, the Ohio courts avoided giving serious consideration to past evidence of Hill’s intellectual disability. Doing so amounted to an unreasonable determination of the facts and an unreasonable application of even the general Atkins standard.”

Hill has been on death row since he was 19 years old.

He was diagnosed with several intellectual disabilities during his childhood, participated in special education classes for the entirety of his academic career, and struggled with basic adaptive skills — including self-hygiene — throughout his life, and argued in several habeas petitions that these deficiencies prevented him from being executed by the state.

Although there were no restrictions on the execution of intellectually disabled inmates at the time of Hill’s conviction, he argued the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia rendered his death sentence cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

A federal judge denied his petition in 2014, but appeals took the case to the Sixth Circuit and then the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was remanded back to the Cincinnati-based appeals court for arguments that took place in December 2019.

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.

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