On Warren Hill, Yokamon Hearn, and the ethics of the death penalty.

UPDATE, 7/18/12: Georgia decided on Tuesday to postpone the execution of Warren Hill until next Monday, “as it makes changes to its lethal-injection protocol… switching to a single drug, pentobarbital, from a combination of three drugs.” Yokamon Hearn is scheduled to be executed today.

When Troy Davis was executed in September, hundreds of thousands of people understood the state of Georgia to have murdered an innocent man.

Georgia now stands ready to execute Warren Hill, a man with mental retardation — coincidentally on the same day, Wednesday, that Texas plans to execute Yokamon Hearn, a man “who has, since early childhood, shown clear and consistent evidence of brain damage.”

Unlike Davis, who was almost certainly innocent, however, Hill and Hearn are guilty of the crimes for which they have been sentenced. Hill is guilty not only of killing his girlfriend in 1986, but also of killing his prison cellmate in 1991; Hearn shot a man several times in the head in the midst of a car-jacking. These crimes are horrific, and I’ll be honest: The fact of either man’s mental disability means little to me in terms of my horror.

But my horror will not be lessened, nor will anyone be made safer, if additional people are killed.

Copious studies have shown that the death penalty doesn’t serve as a deterrent, just as copious cases have shown our legal system’s frightening fallibility. The death penalty tends to be expensive for taxpayers, and legal analyst Andrew Cohen argues at The Atlantic that death penalty cases are too often used to score what amount to ideological points:

At their best, [the Hill and Hearn] cases represent warped legal reasoning. At their worst, [they] represent the cynical use of such reasoning in the pursuit of the unjust and the unreasonable.

All of these are important factors, but they matter about as much to me as does the mental capacity of the two men set to be killed on Wednesday — which is to say: Very, very secondarily.

I realize that the following is neither nuanced, nor analytic, but occasionally the ethics of a circumstance require neither:  Bottom line, the death penalty is wrong. Killing people is wrong.

In a moment of self-defense, in an effort to protect others, or while in the course of a war in which the dead wear uniforms — we have made exceptions for these cases, because sometimes we must weigh one evil against another. Such is human reality. We must sometimes accept that which is unacceptable because we have no choice.

But the death penalty is never such a case. When we execute people — whether they are innocent like Troy Davis and Cameron Todd Willingham, mentally disabled like Warren Hill or Yokamon Hearn, or just straight-up guilty like Scott Peterson — we are making a choice. We are sitting at our desks in air conditioned comfort, going home to tuck in our children and sleep in our beds, getting up in the morning and looking ourselves in the mirror.

And choosing death.

It’s never right. Never.

If you’re in/near Georgia, here’s a list of vigil sites for Warren Hill; if you’re in/near Texas, here’s a list of sites for Yokamon Hearn.

To my mind, these are not vigils simply for the men in question, but for our nation and, if you will forgive me, our soul. If you have a chance to go, please do.


  1. thank you, emily. i haven’t had the ability to wrap my brain or energies around warren hill’s impending execution though i was trying to follow what i could from, you know, where i was. thank you for writing about this, thank you for all you do/write/say

  2. Rae

     /  July 16, 2012

    the death penalty is murder, that is a lazy way to deal with a serious problem. I hope that all states outlaw the death penalty, or better yet there is a national ban. The UN should sanction the USA for having such laws.

  3. L.

     /  July 17, 2012

    Thank you for writing about this, Emily. I did not know about Yokamon Hearn. I will read up on him and include him when I talk to people about Warren Hill.