Atkins v. Virginia

Atkins v. Virgina

536 U.S. 304 (2002)

Facts and Procedural History:

Petitioner was convicted of abduction, armed robbery, and capital murder.
In the penalty stage, a forensic psychologist who had evaluated Atkins before trial concluded that he was “mildly mentally retarded”. His conclusion was based on interviews with people who knew Atkins, a review of school and court records, and the administration of a standard intelligence test, which indicated that Atkins had a full scale IQ of 59. Compared to the population at large, that means he was in the lowest one percentile in intelligence. The jury sentenced Atkins to death, but the Virginia Supreme Court ordered a second sentencing hearing because the trial court had used a misleading verdict form. At the re-sentencing, the State presented an expert rebuttal witness, who expressed the opinion that Atkins was not mentally retarded, but rather was of “average intelligence, at least,” and diagnosable as having antisocial personality disorder. The jury again sentenced Atkins to death.

The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the imposition of the death penalty, and relying on the holding in Penry rejected the contention that Atkins thus could not be sentenced to death. The court was “not willing to commute Atkins' sentence of death to life imprisonment merely because of his IQ score.” However, dissenters concluded that “the imposition of the sentence of death upon a criminal defendant who has the mental age of a child between the ages of 9 and 12 is excessive.”

Because of the gravity of the concerns expressed by the dissenters, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue Presented to the Court:

Is the execution of a defendant with mental retardation cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?

Outcome of the Case:

In its reasoning the Court confirms the previous opinions that a punishment is excessive if it is not graduated and proportioned to the offense and that such claim should be judged by “evolving standards of decency”. Proportionality review under those evolving standards should be informed by objective factors, the most reliable of which legislation enacted by states. In particular, the large number of States prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded persons (and the complete absence of legislation reinstating such executions) provides “powerful evidence that today society views mentally retarded offenders as categorically less culpable than the average criminal”.

The Court, next, makes an independent evaluation of the issue and agrees with the legislative consensus for the following two reasons. First, retribution and deterrence of capital crimes, principal justifications for the death penalty, do not apply to mentally retarded offenders. Second, mentally retarded defendants face a special risk of wrongful execution “because of the possibility that they will unwittingly confess to crimes they did not commit, their lesser ability to give their counsel meaningful assistance, and the facts that they are typically poor witnesses and that their demeanor may create an unwarranted impression of lack of remorse for their crimes”.

Holding: Executions of mentally retarded criminals are “cruel and unusual punishments” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.