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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Atkins v. Virginia- Execution of the Mentally Retarded is Prohibited

Daryl Renard Atkins was convicted for the August 16, 1996 abduction, armed robbery, and capital murder of Eric Nesbitt in Virginia. Atkins appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and this case set precedent because in 2002 the Court granted certiorari and Justice Stevens held that executions of mentally retarded criminals were "cruel and unusual" punishments prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. I will discuss the Court's reasoning for this decision.

When a ruling on a matter of law sets precedent, it furnishes an example or authority for similar or identical cases that will follow it. Only very rarely will the courts depart from this doctrine called stare decisis, which is a term that means when a court makes a decision it sticks to it, as do courts of equal or lower rank. One of the exceptions when the courts will reconsider matters of precedent is when considerations of public policy demand it.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court of appeals in the nation and the Supreme Court justices are tasked with interpreting the Federal Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court uses the Writ of Certiorari as a discretionary device to choose the cases it will hear. Certiorari is a Latin word that means "to be informed of" and is a writ issued by a superior court to a lower court requiring that it produce a certified record of a particular case tried there in the lower court. In 2009-2010 there were 8,159 petitions for Writ of Certiorari, and usually the Court only hears oral arguments for approximately 100 cases per Term, issuing full opinions for 75-85 of those, and writing orders for 50-60 that are reviewed without oral argument.

The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Atkins case abrogated a previous ruling by the Court in Penry v. Lynaugh. Abrogate is another fancy word they use that just means "to cancel," basically. That the Court changed its stance is a big thing. So, why did the majority decide to do so? To answer this, we must first understand how the United States justifies continuing the death penalty.

Under the Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, a punishment is "cruel and unusual" if it falls within one of two categories: 
1) "those modes or acts of punishment that had been considered cruel and unusual at the time that the Bill of Rights was adopted" as set forth in Ford v. Wainwright
2) modes of punishment that are not consistent with modern standards of decency, as demonstrated by facts and signs without bias or prejudice (objective indicia), the most important of which is "legislation enacted by the country's legislatures," established in Penry v. Lynaugh.

In Gregg v. Georgia the Court identified "retribution and deterrence" as the social purposes served by the death penalty. Quoting Enmund v. Florida, Justice Stevens wrote that, "Unless the imposition of the death penalty on a mentally retarded person 'measurably contributes to one or both of these goals, it "is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering," and hence an unconstitutional punishment.'" Justice Scalia adds, also quoting Gregg v. Georgia, that there is a third social purpose of the death penalty- "incapacitation of dangerous criminals and the consequent prevention of crimes that they may otherwise commit in the future."

Retribution is the interest in seeing that the offender gets his "just deserts". To balance this, the severity of the appropriate punishment necessarily depends on the culpability of the offender. Culpability being the blameworthiness of the offender, requiring a showing that he acted purposely, knowingly, recklessly or negligently. The death penalty being the most severe and most final of punishments to impose, the courts confine it to the most serious crimes. And since the Court's ruling in Godfrey v. Georgia that the culpability of the average murderer is insufficient to justify the most extreme sanction, Justice Stevens reasons that neither should should the metally retarded offender -with their diminished culpability- be considered more culpable than the average murderer and be suitable for execution.

The goal of deterrence is not furthered by the execution of mentally retarded offenders since, by definition, they have a diminished ability to understand and process information, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning or to control impulses. The very impairments that render them less morally culpable, also make it less likely that they can process the possibility of execution as a penalty and control their conduct based on that information.

Taking into account the decision in Lockett v. Ohio, Justice Stevens believed that the risk is enhanced "that the death penalty will be imposed in spite of factors which may call for a less severe penalty" because mentally retarded defendants in the aggregate 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. Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of "evolving standards of decency," the Court concluded that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution places a substantive restriction on the State's power to take the life of a mentally retarded offender.

In his dissent, Chief Justice Rehnquist stated that he believes the Court was in error to accord any weight on the Eighth Amendment scale to public opinion poll results and the fact that several professional organizations and religious groups have adopted official positions opposing the imposition of the death penalty upon mentally retarded offenders, when the elected representatives of a State's populace have not deemed them persuasive enough to prompt legislative action; legislation being the clearest and most objective evidence of contemporary values. Back in 1972 the Court expressed its opinion in Furman v. Georgia that legislatures, not courts, are constituted to respond to the will and consequently the moral values of the people.

Rehnquist disagreed with the methodology of the polling and its overall reliability. For anyone planning to use such in the courts, they should take note of this and be well prepared. Rehnquist cites the Federal Judicial Center's Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence and its Manual for Complex Litigation as offering helpful suggestions to judges called upon to assess the weight and admissibility of survey evidence on a factual issue before a court.

Though entitled to less weight than legislative decisions, Rehnquist points out that the Court has recognized data concerning the actions of sentencing juries, as in Coker v. Georgia and Enmund v. Florida. Data that is completely absent in the Atkins case. In Rehnquist's view, the work product of legislatures and sentencing jury determinations should be the sole indicators used to ascertain contemporary American conceptions of decency for purposes of the Eighth Amendment. Also, specifications of punishments are questions of legislative policy, decided in Gore v. United States.

Justice Scalia points out in his dissent that the Court has extracted a "national consensus" forbidding execution of the mentally retarded from the fact that 18 States had recently enacted legislation barring execution of the mentally retarded. That was less than half of the 38 States that permit capital punishment, and only 7 of those 18 have legislation barring the execution of all the mentally retarded. The other eleven prohibit execution of mentally retarded defendants convicted after, or convicted of crimes committed after, the effective date of the legislation, and permit the execution of mentally retarded offenders who commit murder in a correctional facility and all but the most severely mentally retarded convicts.

Scalia believed that the Court's "consistency of the direction of change" reasoning was faulty, referring to the recent legislation. Even more scathingly, Scalia says that, "'Special risk' is pretty flabby language (even flabbier than 'less likely') -and I suppose a similar 'special risk' could be said to exist for just plain stupid people, inarticulate people, even ugly people."

I hope this post has been of some help to those who want to understand the Court's reasoning in some of these cases and has saved you the trouble of reading 28 pages of small-print legalese. But for those of you who are advocates of prisoners' rights, civil rights, or Constitutional rights the cases ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court are necessary reading. Even if they are seemingly negative rulings- read them. Inside you will find the keys to what was done incorrectly and how the petitioner could have made a more solid foundation for their arguments. You also get to read some real gems from the Justices, like those I've quoted here.

About Steven

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Steven Farris is a prisoner who has been incarcerated since a month after his 16th birthday in 1998. Currently serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole, he is seeking to educate the public about the true nature of prison and the widespread and negative effects of the prison industrial complex. Steven has worked with both the National Prison Project of the ACLU, as well as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in furthering this effort.

You can contact him directly at:
Steven Farris #R5580
P.O. Box 1889
Woodville, MS 39669-1889

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