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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 punishments.
 

The Case

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, killing him.
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 Ruling

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 retarded.
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."
 

Subsequent Developments

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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Poster Thread
Highlights of 2009

 

Highlights of 2009

 

DC Beltway Sniper is Executed in Virginia - Read more..

Ohio halts execution, cannot find a suitable vein to use - Read more..

Ohio adopts new Lethal Injection Procecdure - Read more..

 

Inmates executed since 1976

2008 Year End Death Penalty Statistics

Current Death Penalty Statistics from the Dept. of Justice

Current U.S. Department of Justice Statistics

 

  • In 2008, 37 persons in nine states were executed -- 18 in Texas; 4 in Virginia; 3 each in Georgia and South Carolina; 2 each in Florida, Mississippi, Ohio, and Oklahoma, and 1 in Kentucky.
     
  •   Of persons executed in 2008:
    -- 20 were white
    -- 17 were black
     
  •  All 37 inmates executed in 2008 were men.
     
  •  Lethal injection was used in 36 executions in 2008; 1 execution was by electrocution.

 

2007 Year End Death Penalty Statistics

Current Death Penalty Statistics from the Dept. of Justice

Current U.S. Department of Justice Statistics


In 2007, 42 persons in 10 States were executed -- 26 in Texas; 3 each in Alabama and Oklahoma; 2 each in Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee; and 1 each in South Dakota, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona.

Of persons executed in 2007:
-- 28 were white
-- 14 were black

All 42 inmates executed in 2007 were men.

Lethal injection was used in 41 executions in 2007; 1 execution was by electrocution.

Thirty-eight States and the Federal government in 2007 had capital statutes.