Daryl Atkins won a landmark ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 barring the execution of mentally retarded offenders. When Atkins' case returned to Virginia courts, however, a jury found that he is not mentally retarded and left him on death row for a 1996 robbery-murder.
The jury in Yorktown, Va., heard seven days of testimony and deliberated for 13 hours before deciding on Aug. 5 that Atkins is not mentally retarded under Virginia law. Jurors apparently credited testimony offered by prosecution witnesses that the 27-year-old Atkins manages to perform daily life functions over evidence introduced by the defense, including IQ scores below the threshold of 70 set by Virginia law to define mental retardation.
Atkins' lawyers say they will appeal the panel's decision. For now, however, the result is one sign that the Supreme Court's decision in the case that bears his name will not produce the benefits that advocates for the mentally retarded had hoped or expected.
“The promise of Atkins has not been realized,” says Robin Maher, director of the American Bar Association's death penalty representation project.
States faced no such difficult implementation decisions in applying the Supreme Court's March 2005 decision barring execution of juvenile offenders. The ruling in Roper v. Simmons means that anyone convicted of an offense committed under the age of 18 is ineligible for the death penalty. But in banning the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants in Atkins v. Virginia, the high court left it to the states to establish their own definitions of retardation.
Darryl R. Atkins (Virginia Dept. of Corrections)
Since the Atkins case, Virginia and seven other states — California, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada and Utah — have changed their statutes to comply with the ruling, according to a compilation by the Death Penalty Information Center. In seven of the states, the judge determines if the defendant is mentally retarded; only in Virginia does the jury decide.
The eight states consider offenders as mentally retarded if their IQ falls below a certain level, generally between 70 and 75, and if they demonstrate deficits in adaptive behavior before the age of 18.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the anti-death penalty group, calls the Virginia procedure “unusual” because mental retardation is determined in other states before the trial begins. Virginia's procedure calls for a trial on guilt or innocence with a hearing on mental retardation afterward before the same jury.
The procedure “colors the decision-making process,” Dieter says, because it is hard for jurors to make an objective decision “once you tell the jury they're letting somebody off for the worst punishment.”
Atkins was convicted of capital murder for abducting a U.S. airman outside a store, forcing him to withdraw $200 from an automated teller machine, and then shooting him eight times. A co-defendant who pleaded guilty in exchange for reduced charges claimed — but Atkins denied — that it was Atkins who did the shooting.
The ABA's Maher says procedures in other states are also unfair to mentally retarded offenders. “Almost all the statutes inappropriately place the burden of persuasion on the mentally retarded prisoner or require proof that does not comport with professional standards,” Maher says. In addition, Maher says that several states with relatively large numbers of death penalty cases — including Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma — have refused to enact laws to protect the mentally retarded from executions.
A leading prosecutor, however, blames the Supreme Court for problems in implementing the decision. “States are lurching along trying to come up with statutes that comply with Atkins, but they're having problems because the court didn't really say what they needed to do,” says Joshua Marquis, district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., and chair of the National District Attorneys Association's capital litigation committee.
Courts in Texas, the state with the highest number of executions, have upheld death sentences in several cases involving mental retardation issues following guidelines set by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In a ruling in February 2004, the Texas court rejected a mental retardation plea in upholding the death sentence imposed on Jose Briseno for the 1991 slaying of a local sheriff. The court reasoned that Briseno was not mentally retarded because he was able to devise plans and adjust to his surroundings.
Prosecutors in Atkins' case made a similar argument about his problem-solving ability by offering testimony that while in prison, Atkins had been observed placing his soup bowl in a sink containing hot water to keep it warm. A defense expert, however, reached a different conclusion from the incident, saying that Atkins apparently failed to appreciate that the water would soon cool.
— Melissa J. Hipolit