Atkins vs Virginia
Atkins vs Virginia
Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), is a case in which the
Supreme Court of the United States (in a 6 to 3 decision) ruled that executing
the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual
At midnight on August 16, 1996, following a day spent together
drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, Daryl Atkins and his accomplice, William
Jones, drove to a convenience store where they abducted Eric Nesbitt, an airman
from nearby Langley Air Force Base. Unsatisfied with the $60 they found in his
wallet, Atkins and Jones drove Nesbitt in his own vehicle to a nearby ATM and
forced him withdraw a further $200. In spite of Nesbitt's pleas, the two
abductors then drove him to an isolated location, where he was shot eight times,
Footage of Atkins and Jones in the vehicle with Nesbitt was captured on the
ATM's CCTV camera, and further forensic evidence implicating the two was found
in Nesbitt's abandoned vehicle. The two suspects were quickly tracked down and
arrested. In custody, each man claimed that the other had pulled the trigger.
Atkins' version of the events, however, was found to contain a number of
inconsistencies. Doubts concerning Atkins's testimony were strengthened when a
cell-mate claimed that Atkins had confessed to him that he had shot Nesbitt. A
deal of life imprisonment was negotiated with Jones in return for his full
testimony against Atkins. The jury decided that Jones's version of events was
the more coherent and credible, and convicted Atkins of capital murder.
During the penalty phase of the trial, the defense presented Atkins's school
records and the results of an IQ test carried out by clinical psychologist Dr.
Evan Nelson, that placed his score at 59. On this basis they proposed that he
was "mildly mentally retarded". Atkins was nevertheless sentenced to death.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the conviction but reversed
the sentence after finding that an improper sentencing verdict form had been
used. At retrial, the prosecution proved two aggravating factors under Virginia
law -- that Atkins posed a risk of "future dangerousness," based on a string of
previous violent convictions, and that the offense was committed in a vile
manner. The state's witness, Dr Stanton Samenow, countered the defense's
arguments that Atkins was mentally retarded, stating that Atkins's vocabulary,
general knowledge and behavior suggested that he possessed at least average
intelligence. As a result, Atkins's death sentence was upheld. The Virginia
Supreme Court subsequently affirmed the sentence based on a prior Supreme Court
decision, Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989).
Because of what it perceived to be a shift in the judgments of state
legislatures as to whether the mentally retarded are appropriate candidates for
execution in the thirteen years since Penry was decided, the Supreme Court
agreed to review Atkins' death sentence. The Court heard oral arguments in the
case on February 20, 2002.
The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution generally
forbids cruel and unusual punishments. In the ruling the it was stated that,
unlike other provisions of the Constitution, the Eighth Amendment should be
interpreted in light of the "evolving standards of decency that mark the
progress of a maturing society." The best evidence on this score was determined
to be the judgment of state legislatures. Accordingly, the Court had previously
found that the death penalty was inappropriate for the crime of rape, Coker v.
Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977), or for those convicted of felony murder who
neither themselves killed, attempted to kill, or intended to kill, Enmund v.
Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982). The Court found that the Eighth Amendment forbids
the imposition of the death penalty in these cases because "most of the
legislatures that have recently addressed the matter" have rejected the death
penalty for these offenders, and the Court will generally defer to the judgments
of those bodies.
The Court then described how a national consensus that the mentally retarded
should not be executed had emerged. In 1986, Georgia was the first state to
outlaw the execution of the mentally retarded. Congress followed two years
later, and the next year Maryland joined these two jurisdictions. Thus, when the
Court confronted the issue in Penry in 1989, the Court could not say that a
national consensus against executing the mentally retarded had emerged. Over the
next twelve years, nineteen more states exempted the mentally retarded from
capital punishment under their laws, bringing the total number of states to
twenty-one, plus the federal government. In light of the "consistency of
direction of change" toward a prohibition on the execution of the mentally
retarded, and the relative rarity of such executions in states that still allow
it, the Court proclaimed that a "national consensus has developed against it."
The Court, however, left it to individual states to make the difficult decision
regarding what determines mental retardation.
Also, the "relationship between mental retardation and the penological purposes
served by the death penalty" justifies a conclusion that executing the mentally
retarded is cruel and unusual punishment that the Eighth Amendment should
forbid. In other words, unless it can be shown that executing the mentally
retarded promotes the goals of retribution and deterrence, doing so is nothing
more than "purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering," making
the death penalty cruel and unusual in those cases. Being mentally retarded
means that a person not only has substandard intellectual functioning but also
significant limitations in adaptive skills such as communication, self-care, and
self-direction. These deficiencies typically manifest before the age of
eighteen. Although they can know the difference between right and wrong, these
deficiencies mean they have a lesser ability to learn from experience, engage in
logical reasoning, and understand the reactions of others. This means that
inflicting the death penalty on one mentally retarded individual is less likely
to deter other mentally retarded individuals from committing crimes. As for
retribution, society's interest in seeing that a criminal get his "just deserts"
means that the death penalty must be confined to the "most serious" of murders,
not simply the average murder. The goal of retribution is not served by imposing
the death penalty on a group of people who have a significantly lesser capacity
to understand why they are being executed.
Because the mentally retarded are not able to communicate with the same
sophistication as the average offender, there is a greater likelihood that their
deficiency in communicative ability will be interpreted by juries as a lack of
remorse for their crimes. They typically make poor witnesses, being more prone
to suggestion and willing to "confess" in order to placate or please their
questioner. As such, there is a greater risk that the jury may impose the death
penalty despite the existence of evidence that suggests that a lesser penalty
should be imposed. In light of the "evolving standards of decency" that the
Eighth Amendment demands, the fact that the goals of retribution and deterrence
are not served as well in the execution of the mentally retarded, and the
heightened risk that the death penalty will be imposed erroneously, the Court
concluded that the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution of the mentally
In dissent, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William
Rehnquist argued that in spite of the increased number of states which had
outlawed the execution of the mentally retarded, there was no clear national
consensus, and that even given if there were, there was no basis in the Eighth
Amendment for using such measures of opinion to determine what is "cruel and
unusual". Justice Antonin Scalia commented in his dissent that "seldom has an
opinion of this court rested so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of
its members". The citing of an amicus brief from the European Union also drew
criticism from Chief Justice Rehnquist, who denounced the "Court's decision to
place weight on foreign laws."
Ironically, although Atkins's case and ruling may have saved
other mentally retarded inmates from the death penalty, a jury in Virginia
decided in July 2005 that he was intelligent enough to be executed as the
constant contact he had with his lawyers had intellectually stimulated him and
raised his IQ above 70, making him competent to be put to death under Virginia
law. The prosecution had argued that his poor school performance was caused by
his use of alcohol and drugs, and that his lower scores in earlier IQ tests were
tainted. His execution date was set for December 2, 2005 but was later stayed.
The Virginia Supreme Court has recently reversed Atkins's death sentence again,
although on state procedural grounds.
To go to the original Supreme
Court decision please click here
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