Atkins v. Virginia
Atkins v. Virginia, , is a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 ruled 6-3 that executing the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment
Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution is the part of the United States Bill of Rights which prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishments. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this amendment's Cruel and Unusual...

's ban on cruel and unusual punishment
Cruel and unusual punishment
Cruel and unusual punishment is a phrase describing criminal punishment which is considered unacceptable due to the suffering or humiliation it inflicts on the condemned person...


The case

Around midnight on August 16, 1996, following a day spent together drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, 18 year old Daryl Atkins and his accomplice, William Jones, walked to a nearby 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 to 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 were captured on the ATM's CCTV
Closed-circuit television
Closed-circuit television is the use of video cameras to transmit a signal to a specific place, on a limited set of monitors....

 camera, which was of the two men with Nesbitt in the middle and leaning across Jones to withdraw money, and further forensic evidence implicating the two were 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' 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
Clinical psychology
Clinical psychology is an integration of science, theory and clinical knowledge for the purpose of understanding, preventing, and relieving psychologically-based distress or dysfunction and to promote subjective well-being and personal development...

 Dr. Evan Nelson confirmed that he had an IQ of 59. On this basis they proposed that he was "mildly mentally retarded
Mental retardation
Mental retardation is a generalized disorder appearing before adulthood, characterized by significantly impaired cognitive functioning and deficits in two or more adaptive behaviors...

". Atkins was nevertheless sentenced to death.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia
Supreme Court of Virginia
The Supreme Court of Virginia is the highest court in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It primarily hears appeals from the trial-level city and county Circuit Courts, as well as the criminal law, family law and administrative law cases that go through the Court of Appeals of Virginia. It is one of...

 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
Stanton Samenow
Stanton Samenow is an American psychologist and writer."Dr. Stanton Samenow received his B.A. from Yale University in 1963 and his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan in 1968...In 1978, Dr. Samenow entered the private practice of clinical psychology in Alexandria, Virginia...

, countered the defense's arguments that Atkins was mentally retarded, by 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
Penry v. Lynaugh
Penry v. Lynaugh, , sanctioned the death penalty for mentally retarded offenders because the Court determined executing the mentally retarded was not "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment...

, 492 U.S. 302 (1989). Justice Cynthia D. Kinser
Cynthia D. Kinser
Cynthia D. Kinser is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia who was elected by the Virginia General Assembly to her first 12-year term in 1998 after being appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy in 1997. Justice Kinser was elected to a second 12-year term during the 2010 session...

 authored the five-member majority. Justices Leroy Rountree Hassell, Sr.
Leroy Rountree Hassell, Sr.
Leroy Rountree Hassell, Sr. was a Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court and the first African-American Chief Justice of that Court, serving two four-year terms from February 1, 2003 to January 31, 2011. He was succeeded by the current Chief Justice, Cynthia D. Kinser...

 and Lawrence L. Koontz, Jr.
Lawrence L. Koontz, Jr.
Lawrence Larkins Koontz, Jr. is a Senior Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Justice Koontz has served at every level of court judicial system...

 each authored dissenting opinions and joined in each other's dissent.

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 forbids cruel and unusual punishments. In the ruling 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
Rape is a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse, which is initiated by one or more persons against another person without that person's consent. The act may be carried out by physical force, coercion, abuse of authority or with a person who is incapable of valid consent. The...

 in Coker v. Georgia
Coker v. Georgia
Coker v. Georgia, , held that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution forbade the death penalty for the crime of rape of a woman.-Facts:...

, 433 U.S. 584 (1977), or for those convicted of felony murder who neither themselves killed, attempted to kill, or intended to kill in Enmund v. Florida
Enmund v. Florida
Enmund v. Florida, , is a United States Supreme Court case was a 5-4 decision in which the United States Supreme Court applied its capital proportionality principle to set aside the death penalty for the driver of a getaway car in a robbery-murder of an elderly Florida couple.-Background:While...

, 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
Georgia (U.S. state)
Georgia is a state located in the southeastern United States. It was established in 1732, the last of the original Thirteen Colonies. The state is named after King George II of Great Britain. Georgia was the fourth state to ratify the United States Constitution, on January 2, 1788...

 was the first state to outlaw the execution of the mentally retarded. Congress followed two years later, and the next year Maryland
Maryland is a U.S. state located in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, bordering Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware to its east...

 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. While there are 50 states, 19 don't allow the death penalty under any circumstance, making 31 a clear majority of the death penalty states. 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
Antonin Scalia
Antonin Gregory Scalia is an American jurist who serves as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. As the longest-serving justice on the Court, Scalia is the Senior Associate Justice...

, Clarence Thomas
Clarence Thomas
Clarence Thomas is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Succeeding Thurgood Marshall, Thomas is the second African American to serve on the Court....

 and Chief Justice William Rehnquist
William Rehnquist
William Hubbs Rehnquist was an American lawyer, jurist, and political figure who served as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States and later as the 16th Chief Justice of the United States...

 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

Although Atkins's case and ruling may have saved other mentally retarded inmates from the death penalty, a jury in Virginia
The Commonwealth of Virginia , is a U.S. state on the Atlantic Coast of the Southern United States. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there...

 decided in July 2005 that Atkins was intelligent enough to be executed on the basis that 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.

However, in January 2008, Circuit Court Judge Prentis Smiley, who was revisiting the matter of whether Atkins was or was not retarded, received allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. These allegations, if true, would have authorized a new trial for Atkins. After two days of testimony on the matter, Smiley determined that prosecutorial misconduct had occurred. At this juncture, Smiley could have vacated Atkins' conviction and ordered a new trial. Instead, Smiley determined that the evidence was overwhelming that Atkins had participated in a felony-murder, Smiley commuted Atkins' sentence to life in prison. Prosecutors sought writs of mandamus and prohibition in the Virginia Supreme Court on the matter, claiming Smiley had exceeded his judicial authority with his ruling. On June 4, 2009, the Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision authored by Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell, Sr., ruled that neither mandamus
A writ of mandamus or mandamus , or sometimes mandate, is the name of one of the prerogative writs in the common law, and is "issued by a superior court to compel a lower court or a government officer to perform mandatory or purely ministerial duties correctly".Mandamus is a judicial remedy which...

 nor prohibition were available to overturn the court's decision to commute the sentence. Justice Cynthia D. Kinser
Cynthia D. Kinser
Cynthia D. Kinser is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia who was elected by the Virginia General Assembly to her first 12-year term in 1998 after being appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy in 1997. Justice Kinser was elected to a second 12-year term during the 2010 session...

, joined by Justice Donald W. Lemons
Donald W. Lemons
Donald W. Lemons is a Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia currently completing his first 12-year term. He received both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Virginia....

, the Court's two most conservative members, wrote a lengthy dissent that was highly critical of both the majority's reasoning and the action of the circuit court in commuting the sentence.

See also

External links

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