- Atkins v. Virginia
Atkins v. Virginia
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued February 20, 2002
Decided June 20, 2002
Full case name Daryl Renard Atkins, Petitioner v. Virginia Citations 536 U.S. 304 (more)
122 S. Ct. 2242; 153 L. Ed. 2d 335; 2002 U.S. LEXIS 4648; 70 U.S.L.W. 4585; 2002 Cal. Daily Op. Service 5439; 2002 Daily Journal DAR 6937; 15 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 397
Prior history Defendant convicted, York County Virginia Circuit Court; affirmed in part, reversed in part, remanded, 510 S.E.2d 445 (Va. 1999); defendant resentenced, York County Circuit Court; affirmed, 534 S.E.2d 312 (Va. 2000); cert. granted, 533 U.S. 976 (2001) Subsequent history Remanded to Circuit Court, 581 S.E.2d 514 (Va. 2003) Holding A Virginia law allowing the execution of mentally handicapped individuals violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments. Supreme Court of Virginia reversed and remanded. Court membershipChief Justice
Case opinions Majority Stevens, joined by O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer Dissent Rehnquist, joined by Scalia, Thomas Dissent Scalia, joined by Rehnquist, Thomas Laws applied U.S. Const. amend. VIII
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 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 Dr. Evan Nelson confirmed that he had an IQ of 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, 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, 492 U.S. 302 (1989). Justice Cynthia D. Kinser authored the five-member majority. Justices Leroy Rountree Hassell, Sr. and Lawrence L. Koontz, Jr. 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 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 in 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 in 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. 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, 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."
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 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 nor prohibition were available to overturn the court's decision to commute the sentence. Justice Cynthia D. Kinser, joined by Justice Donald W. Lemons, 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.
- List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 536
- List of United States Supreme Court cases
- Bigby v. Dretke
- ^ Liptak, Adam (January 19, 2008). "Lawyer Reveals Secret, Toppling Death Sentence - New York Times". www.nytimes.com. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/19/us/19death.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
- ^ Liptak, Adam (February 8, 2008). "Virginia: Inmate Will Remain on Death Row". www.nytimes.com. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/08/us/08brfs-INMATEWILLRE_BRF.html?_r=1&ref=us&oref=slogin. Retrieved 2008-11-20.
- Transcript of oral argument
- Multimedia resources, OYEZ project
- Information about Atkins from the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment clearinghouse
- "Killer's fate hanging on his IQ" at BBC News
- Information about applying Atkins from the American Psychiatric Association
- Amicus brief of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation
- Amicus brief of the American Association on Mental Retardation
- Virginia Supreme Court Opinion in Atkins v. Commonwealth including dissents of Hassell and Koontz
- Blog entry from the Daily Kos
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.