By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published February 19, 2015
ATLANTA—The State of Georgia executed Warren Lee Hill, who had received the sacraments of the Catholic Church while on death row, the evening of Jan. 27.
Hill, sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a fellow inmate, died by lethal injection. The U.S. Supreme Court denied his application for a stay of execution earlier that day.
Hill’s original prison sentence was a life term for the killing of his girlfriend.
In the years leading up to the execution, Hill had been granted reprieves from execution as attorneys representing him challenged Georgia’s Lethal Injections Secrecy Act and also brought forward evaluations that Hill’s sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment due to mental retardation.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the death penalty cannot be applied if an inmate is mentally retarded, but left it to each state to determine how that standard is met. Georgia has the highest such standard to meet of any state.
Three men executed in Georgia since December, woman may be executed in February
Hill’s death was the latest of three executions at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson since December.
Robert Wayne Holsey was executed Dec. 9, 2014, and Andrew Brannan on Jan. 13.
Deacon Richard Tolcher, head of the archdiocesan prison ministry, had provided spiritual ministry to all three men.
Deacon Tolcher baptized Hill on Feb. 14, 2013, the culmination of their meeting regularly since the fall of 2012. The deacon taught him about prayer, sacraments and the Catholic faith. The late Father Austin Fogarty, who regularly celebrated Mass at the prison, gave Hill his first Communion the same day and then confirmed him with the permission of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
“Archbishop Gregory heard his confession about a month ago,” said Deacon Tolcher.
Hill asked Deacon Norm Keller and Deacon Tolcher to witness his execution. Although Hill declined offering any last words, he did want a prayer said.
Throughout the evening of the execution, Deacon Tolcher kept Archbishop Gregory and Bishop David Talley apprised of developments. Bishop Talley celebrates Mass for death row inmates each month.
Deacon Tolcher had also been meeting with Brannan, convicted of killing a police officer, in his final days. Brannan asked the deacon to witness his death and called his name out as he was dying.
“All of them sought and begged for forgiveness from the victims’ families. None of them said, ‘I didn’t do it,’” said Deacon Tolcher. “Each of them faced their execution in full confidence of their faith.”
The deacon said his goal was to “let them know that God loved them” and that they were “valuable human beings with human dignity.”
When present at an execution, witnesses sit behind a glass window at the feet of the inmate. The prisoner’s arms are extended outward and strapped down, and the upper body is elevated slightly.
The experience reminded Deacon Tolcher of the crucifixion.
Deacon Tolcher said jailhouse conversions are often ridiculed by the public or make prisoners seem weak in the eyes of other inmates.
“I’ll take any kind of conversion,” he said.
Eight inmates on death row participate in weekly Mass
At the Jackson facility, eight inmates, seven of them Catholic, regularly attend Mass, held each Thursday. Priests celebrating Mass include Father John Adamski and Father Richard Tibbetts.
The inmates are often worried about their family members, and Deacon Tolcher said they pray regularly for them and for the loved ones of victims. In a sense, family members are additional victims of violence, he said.
There have been 57 men executed in Georgia since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1973. Georgia’s only female on death row, Kelly Gissendaner, is set to be executed Feb. 25 for planning and convincing her boyfriend to murder her husband. She is imprisoned at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto.
Recently, Deacon Tolcher offered to meet with two more death row inmates as a spiritual director.
The deacon is often asked how he can manage the emotional weight of prison ministry, particularly working with those on death row.
“How can I not do that?” he answered.