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A Georgia inmate's execution was halted last night with less than an hour to go. Prison officials had already begun preparing Warren Lee Hill's lethal injections when a federal appeals court stepped in. Hill has an IQ of 70, and his attorneys have long claimed that he's mentally impaired. The case raises questions about a Georgia law, a law that makes it hard for defendants to prove they should be exempt from execution.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Here's NPR's Kathy Lohr.

Warren Hill was in prison for killing his girlfriend. He shot her 11 times in 1986. Then, while in prison in 1990, he used a wooden board with nails to beat another inmate to death. More than a decade ago, three state doctors that examined Hill said he was not what was then called mentally retarded, but all three have changed their opinion. In affidavits, they say their initial evaluations were extremely and unusually rushed. One said it was a closed case back then, but after reviewing the record now believes Hill does meet the criteria for, quote, "mild mental retardation."

RICHARD DIETER: The question is: Is Georgia violating the Constitution by basically allowing people with mental retardation to be executed?

LOHR: Richard Dieter is with the Death Penalty Information Center which opposes all executions. The Supreme Court, in 2002, banned the execution of those who are mentally retarded, now known as intellectually disabled. Georgia was the first state to ban executions of the mentally retarded back in the 1980s. Dieter says forcing defendants to prove their impairment beyond a reasonable doubt is questionable and the strictest standard in the country.

DIETER: Georgia is the only state that has such a high criteria. Generally, it's more likely than not you have mental retardation, you're exempted. So the issue is: Did Georgia define its law too narrowly to be keeping within due process?

LOHR: Several groups in the state are working to change the standard, including the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. Director Eric Jacobson is among those who've lobbied for a stay of execution and a long-term solution to change the Georgia standard.

ERIC JACOBSON: If Mr. Hill is executed, I think we send a message to our society that we're not concerned about some of our most vulnerable citizens. We're not concerned about the people who probably need the law to stand up for them more than anybody else.

LOHR: State officials would not comment on the case, but in court papers, they say Hill held jobs and served in the military, that he acted as head of the family. The state contends Hill failed to establish that he is mentally retarded. Further, they say he brutally killed two people and should pay for his crimes. The state attorney general is appealing the stay, saying the execution should move forward.

Joshua Marquis is district attorney in Astoria, Oregon. He says he's seen defendants change once they realize they're going to die, including Texas inmate Oliver Cruz who Marquis says tried to manipulate the system.

JOSHUA MARQUIS: This is a guy that was claimed to be mentally retarded, and his IQ was in the upper 60s. But his performance IQ when he was intaked into the Department of Corrections was 106, which is high average. So I'm sure death row depresses people, but 40 points?

LOHR: Marquis says because of the mental impairment issue, the 11th Circuit is taking another look, but he says courts have already spent more than two decades reviewing this case. Georgia has dealt with a number of questions regarding its executions. In 2011, Troy Davis was executed for the murder of an off-duty police officer even after nearly all of the witnesses recanted their testimony. Now, the case of Warren Hill raises new questions. Advocates for the disabled say only 10 percent of those with developmental disabilities are identified at trial, and that the diagnosis is not often made until defendants are in prison or on death row.

Kathy Lohr, NPR news, Atlanta.

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