Sixth Circuit Overturns Death Sentence of Ohio Killer

CINCINNATI (CN) — An Ohio man convicted of murder in 1986 is intellectually disabled and therefore cannot be executed based on Supreme Court precedent, a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel ruled Wednesday.  

In an unsigned opinion vacating his death sentence, the appeals court held that no one “could reasonably deny” that Danny Hill, who was convicted of the murder of 12-year-old Raymond Fife, is intellectually disabled.

The Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati, home of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. (AP Photo/Dan Sewell)

Hill had already been convicted of two rape counts by the time he was 17, struggled with academics for most of his life and had an IQ of between 55 to 68 at the time he was tried for Fife’s murder, according to the ruling.

Despite the testimony of psychological experts at mitigation hearings and a determination that he had significant adaptive defects, Hill was sentenced to death because at the time there were no legal barriers to the execution of intellectually disabled inmates.

The nation’s high court changed that with its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, in which the justices held 6-3 that such executions constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Hill’s original petition for a writ of habeas corpus was rejected by U.S. District Judge John Adams in 2014 when the George W. Bush appointee ruled Hill was not intellectually disabled.

The Sixth Circuit reversed, but that reversal was sent to the Supreme Court, where it was determined the appeals court had applied the improper standard, which led to the most recent set of arguments last December.

Atkins allows states to set forth their own standards for the determination of intellectual disabilities, and the Ohio court system held that Hill did not exhibit “significant adaptive limitations,” one of three requirements under its set of standards.

In Wednesday’s decision, the Cincinnati-based appeals panel found the lower court “veered off track” when it limited its analysis to Hill’s behavior following his arrest and conviction.

“Focusing mostly on Hill’s interactions with law enforcement, prison officials, and the courts, the Ohio courts discounted extensive past evidence of intellectual disability – including multiple diagnoses of intellectual disability, and numerous comments on Hill’s adaptive deficiencies made while Hill was in school,” the ruling states.

It continued, “The two experts who concluded that Hill did not exhibit significant adaptive defects did the same. In the few instances where the Ohio courts did confront Hill’s school records, they misrepresented the contents.”

The court cited Hill’s participation in special education classes for the entirety of his school career, his failure to know his own age when he was 6, and the inability to master basic self-control skills by the age of 14 as credible evidence of his adaptive deficiencies.

The panel was also critical of the lower court’s reliance on expert testimony provided by  two doctors regarding Hill’s behavior on death row, which it called a “segregated, highly structured and regulated environment” that can often mask an inmate’s functional capabilities.

“Having set their gaze on Hill’s interactions with prison, court, and police officials, Drs. Olley and Huntsman said next to nothing about the substantial evidence in the record both from his time in school and in prison that Hill was easily led, struggled to communicate, and struggled to read,” the opinion states.

The panel called the state courts’ misrepresentation of facts about Hill’s education and self-care habits “troubling,” and accused them of cherry-picking facts to downplay his intellectual disabilities.

“This is not a case,” the opinion said, “where evidence of intellectual disability comes out after conviction. Hill was diagnosed as intellectually disabled from a very young age. He attended special education classes. He could not be counted on to bathe. Yet, the Ohio courts were impressed by his ability to incriminate himself to the police and to rehash a scripted story in a cloak of competency. … There is no getting around it — Hill is intellectually disabled. To deny the obvious is unreasonable.”

The panel included Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Gilbert Merritt, an appointee of Jimmy Carter, and U.S. Circuit Judges Karen Moore and Eric Clay, both appointees of Bill Clinton.

Courthouse News spoke with attorney Vicki Werneke of the Northern District of Ohio’s public defender office, who argued on behalf of Hill last year.

Werneke said she spoke to Hill after the decision was released and her client “is very relieved.”

The attorney said she would not be surprised if her counterparts petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a second time, based on the “county prosecutor’s extreme interest in the case.”

In a separate statement, Werneke said Wednesday’s ruling “recognizes that Danny Hill has been intellectually disabled his entire life.”

“Since the Sixth Circuit recognizes Mr. Hill as being intellectually disabled, his sentence to death is unconstitutional,” she said. “Even so, there are still serious issues about the evidence used to convict him that we will continue to litigate.”

Werneke told Courthouse News the evidentiary issues stem from bite mark evidence used to implicate her client in the murder, which she says has now been deemed “junk science” by the scientific community.

Hill is on death row at the Chillicothe, Ohio, Correctional Institution.

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