Atkins v. Virginia

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Atkins v. Virginia

In a landmark 6–3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court barred the execution of mentally retarded people, ruling that it constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. However, the Court left to the states to determine the definition of mental retardation. The decision affected as many as 300 mentally retarded death row inmates in 20 states.

The case involved Daryl Renard Atkins, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for abducting, robbing, and killing 21-year-old airman, Eric Michael Nesbitt. The evidence introduced at trial showed that at approximately midnight on August 16, 1996, Atkins and William Jones, both armed with semiautomatic weapons, abducted Nesbitt, robbed him, drove him to an automated teller machine, forced him to withdraw additional cash, and then took him to an isolated location where they shot him eight times at close range.

Initially, both Jones and Atkins were indicted for capital murder. The prosecution ultimately permitted Jones to plead guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for his testimony against Atkins. As a result of the plea, Jones became ineligible to receive the death penalty.

Jones and Atkins both testified in the guilt phase of Atkins's trial. Each confirmed most of the details in the other's account of the incident, except that each blamed the other for killing Nesbitt. Jones's testimony, which was both more coherent and credible than Atkins's testimony, was apparently credited by the jury in establishing Atkins's guilt. Highly damaging to the credibility of Atkins's testimony was its substantial inconsistency with the statement he gave to the police upon his arrest. Jones, in contrast, had declined to make an initial statement to the authorities.

At the penalty phase of the trial, the state introduced victim impact evidence and proved two aggravating circumstances: future dangerousness and "vileness of the offense." To prove future dangerousness, the state relied on Atkins's prior felony convictions as well as the testimony of four victims of earlier robberies and assaults. To prove the second aggravating circumstance, the prosecution relied upon pictures of the murdered man's body and the autopsy report.

The defense relied on one witness during the penalty phase, Dr. Evan Nelson, a forensic psychologist who had evaluated Atkins before trial and concluded that he was "mildly mentally retarded." His conclusion was based on interviews with people who knew Atkins, a review of school and court records, and the administration of a standard intelligence test, which indicated that Atkins had a full scale IQ of 59. Generally, IQs below 70 are considered in the retarded range. The state presented Dr. Stanton Same now as an expert rebuttal witness. He testified that Atkins was not mentally retarded but rather was of "average intelligence, at least," and diagnosable as having antisocial personality disorder. A jury sentenced Atkins to death and the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the sentence on appeal, saying it was "not willing to commute Atkins's sentence of death to life imprisonment merely because of his IQ score." Atkins v. Commonwealth, 260 Va. 375, 534 S.E.2d 312 (Va. 2000).

When the case was appealed, most observers expected the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the sentence as well. In 1989 the Supreme Court had upheld the execution of a mentally retarded death row inmate, notwithstanding objections that such executions violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on Cruel and Unusual Punishment. Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 109 S.Ct. 2934, 106 L.Ed.2d 256 (1989). But Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority in Atkins, concluded that times had changed in the thirteen years since the Penry decision was handed down.

When Penry was decided, Stevens observed, only two of the 38 states allowing Capital Punishment barred execution of mentally retarded inmates. However, at the time Atkins came before the Court, that number had risen to 18. Noting the "procession" of states in which executing the mentally retarded had been deemed illegal, Justice Stevens stated that it was not so much the number of states that was significant, but the consistency of the direction of change. "Given the well-known fact that anti-crime legislation is far more popular than legislation providing protections for persons guilty of violent crime," he stated, "the large number of states prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded persons (and the complete absence of states passing legislation reinstating the power to conduct such executions) provides powerful evidence that today our society views mentally retarded offenders as categorically less culpable than the average criminal." Thus, Stevens concluded that the Eighth Amendment now prohibited executing mentally retarded persons under the "evolving standards of decency" test by which punishments are evaluated to determine whether they are cruel and unusual.

Chief Justice william rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Chief Justice Rehnquist criticized the majority for basing its decision on the fact that 18 states have laws barring execution of mentally retarded defendants, since the laws of 20 states would have otherwise continued to leave the question of proper punishment to the individuated consideration of sentencing judges or juries familiar with the particular offender and his or her crime. Chief Justice Rehnquist agreed with Justice Scalia's opinion that the majority's assessment of the current legislative judgment more resembled a post hoc rationalization for the majority's "subjectively preferred result" than "any objective effort to ascertain the content of an evolving standard of decency."

Further readings

Dowling, Alexis Krulish. 2003. "Post-Atkins Problems with Enforcing the Supreme Court's Ban on Executing the Mentally Retarded." Seton Hall Law Review 33 (summer): 773–810.

Henshaw, Jaime L. 2003. "The Court's Failure to Recognize What Lies Beneath." Univ. of Richmond Law Review 37 (May): 1185–1221.

"Implementing Atkins." 2003. Harvard Law Review 116 (June): 2565–87.

Velasquez, Eli. 2003. "The Shaping of an American Consensus against the Execution of Mentally Retarded Criminals." Whittier Law Review 24 (summer): 955–83.


Eighth Amendment; Felony; Forensic Science; Murder; Plea; Rebut; Victims of Crime.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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