Atkins v. Virginia (2002) is one of the most important cases debated by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the death penalty. It raised serious ethical issues concerning mental retardation and criminal responsibility. Daryl Renard Atkins was sentenced to death for first-degree murder despite a low IQ of 59, commonly classified within the range of mild retardation. His appeal to the Supreme Court was based on the argument that execution of mentally retarded offenders is cruel and unusual punishment. A divided court agreed with Atkins and reversed his death sentence.
The defendant was convicted in the original capital murder trial of armed robbery, abduction, and capital murder and sentenced to death in 1998. Atkins and an acquaintance had abducted Eric Nesbitt, forced him to withdraw money from his bank account, and shot him eight times, killing him, in a remote location. At the sentencing stage of his trial the prosecution presented two aggravating factors: future dangerousness and vileness of the offense. The defense introduced, as a mitigating factor, that Atkins was mentally retarded. Atkins had a full-scale IQ of 59; he was described by the forensic psychologist as “mildly mentally retarded.” The jury sentenced Atkins to death. This death sentence was vacated by the Virginia Supreme Court because the trial court had used a misleading verdict form in which important information had been omitted. At his second sentencing hearing the prosecutor brought an expert witness to refute the defense’s evidence of mild mental retardation. He testified that he had found Atkins to be of average intelligence, not mentally retarded. Consequently, Atkins was again sentenced to death.
Atkins appealed his death sentence to the Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that his sentence was disproportionate and the penalty excessive to the degree that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The defense further stated that no person with an IQ less than 60 had ever been executed in Virginia. The state Supreme Court disagreed with Atkins and confirmed the death sentence. The judges relied on the earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Penry v. Lynaugh (1989). In Penry the court had confirmed that the death penalty for mentally retarded offenders was constitutional.
Penry had the mental age of a 6½-year-old child, but the court argued that at the time of its ruling, a national consensus against executing mentally retarded offenders did not exist. Virginia’s Supreme Court reasoned that even though mental retardation can serve as a mitigating factor, the death penalty did not violate the proportionality requirement—the idea that worse crimes should get longer sentences—in this case.
Atkins appealed his sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case in 2002. In a 6–3 decision the court ruled this death sentence cruel and unusual. The majority opinion was delivered by Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They argued that there was in fact a national consensus against executing mentally retarded offenders. They held that the death penalty is reserved for only the most serious offenders. The opinion of the court reflected a determination that mentally retarded offenders lack the mental culpability required for a death sentence. The court put great emphasis on the ethical issue of excuting a person who does not fully understand the consequences of his or her actions. Such persons have a diminished moral culpability. Significantly, mentally retarded people often have a diminished ability to aid in their own defense, thereby “jeopardizing the reliability and fairness of capital proceedings.”
The justices cited the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of society as a determining factor in their decision making process. “Evolving standards of decency” refers to the concept that as society changes, its morals and standards require redefinition with regard to what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In this case, the majority justices declared U.S. society evolved to a point in which the execution of any mentally retarded person is cruel and unusual.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and William Rehnquist dissented. They took issue with the majority’s finding that there now existed a national consensus against the execution of mentally retarded offenders. The dissenting justices also disagreed with the court’s application of “evolving standards of decency.” As originalists, they held that the Constitution should be interpreted as it was written and not be reinterpreted as society changes.
Ethical Issues and Implications of Atkins
Atkins is likely to increase the need for, and use of, psychological assessment, along with the legal determination of what actually constitutes mental retardation. The court used the American Association on Mental Retardation’s definition: “sub average general intellectual functioning that originates during the developmental period (prenatal to 16 years) and is associated with impairment in adaptive behavior.” This is a very vague definition in that it does not set specific standards for qualification. In the end, the court avoided the issue. Instead, the justices wrote, “Not all people who claim to be mentally retarded will be so impaired as to fall within the range of mentally retarded offenders.”
The Atkins decision carries serious implications for future constitutional challenges to the death penalty. For instance, in 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the Atkins case was cited extensively by the majority justices in their decision that a death penalty for juvenile offenders constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Any forthcoming cases that raise issues of moral culpability may also rely heavily on Atkins. It is possible that Atkins laid the basis for an increasingly narrow definition of which offenders can be deemed eligible for execution. It appears that the court is moving toward narrowing the harshest punishment to only the most serious offenders.
- American Association of Mental Deficiency. “Mental Retardation: Definition, Classification, and Systems of Supports. 10th ed. (2002). https://bookstore.aaidd.org/BookChapterExcerpt/Mental_Retardation_DCSS.pdf (Accessed September 2013).
- Embretson, S. E. and S. P. Reise. Item Response Theory for Psychologists. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000.
- Knaus, L. and J. Kutkinsky. “Into the Briar Patch: Ethical Dilemmas Facing Psychologists Following Atkins v. Virginia.” Widener Law Review, v.11 (2004).
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