Atkins v. Virginia

LOCATION: York County Court

DOCKET NO.: 00-8452
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Virginia

CITATION: 536 US 304 (2002)
ARGUED: Feb 20, 2002
DECIDED: Jun 20, 2002

James W. Ellis - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Pamela A. Rumpz - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Daryl Renard Atkins was convicted of abduction, armed robbery, and capital murder. In the penalty phase of Atkins' trial, the defense relied on one witness, a forensic psychologist, who testified that Atkins was mildly mentally disabled (or "mentally retarded" in the vernacular of the day). 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. During resentencing the same forensic psychologist testified, but this time the State rebutted Atkins' intelligence. The jury again sentenced Atkins to death. In affirming, the Virginia Supreme Court relied on Penry v. Lynaugh, in rejecting Atkins' contention that he could not be sentenced to death because he is mentally retarded.


Is the execution of mentally retarded persons "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?

Media for Atkins v. Virginia

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 20, 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 20, 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 00-8452 Atkins against Virginia will be announced by Justice Stevens.

John Paul Stevens:

Those mentally retarded persons who meet the law's requirements for criminal responsibility should be tried and punished when they commit crime.

Because of their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment and control of their impulses, however, they do not act with the level of moral culpability that charaterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.

Moreover, their impairments can jeopardize the reliability and fairness of capital proceedings against mentally retarded defendants.

Presumably, for these reasons in the thirteen years since we decided the case of Penry against Lynaugh, the American public, legislators, scholars and judges have deliberated over the question whether the death penalty should ever be imposed on a mentally retarted criminal.

The consensus reflected in those deliberations informs our answer to the question presented by this case: whether such executions are "cruel and unusual punishments" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.

This cames comes to us from the Supreme Court of Virginia. The petitioner Daryl Atkins was convicted of a particularly brutal crime, a capital murder.

At the penalty phase of his trial, an expert witness testified that Atkins is mentally retarded.

The expert's conclusion was based on interviews with people who knew Atkins, a review of court and school records and the administration of a standard intelligence test that indicated that he has an IQ of 59.

The jury nevertheless sentenced him to death.

On appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, Atkins argued that he is mentally retarded and therefore the State may not execute him.

Relying on our holding on the Penry case, the State Court majority over the dissent of two members of the Court rejected this contention and affirmed the sentence.

The two dissenters argued 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 accessive.

Because of the dramatic shift in the state legislative landscape that has occured in the past 13 years, we granted certiorari to revisit the issue that we first addressed in Penry.

We now hold that the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment categorically forbids the execution of the mentally retarded.

Our analysis begins with the text of the Eighth Amendment which succinctly prohibits excessive sanctions.

We have read the text of the Amendment to prohibit all excessive punishment as well as cruel and unusual punishments that may or may not be excessive.

A claim that punishment is excessive is judged by the evolving standards of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society.

This inquiry is informed by objective evidence, most notably by recent legislative enactments.

In cases in which a consensus among the States has emerged, our own judgment is brought to bear by asking whether there is reason to disagree with the judgment reached by the citizenry and its legislators.

With respect to State legislation, we find that much changed in the 13 years since we decided Penry.

At that time, only two States had specifically addressed the precise issue and forbidden the execution of the mentally retarded.

Since then, however, 16 additional States have adopted the ban.

In other States bills have passed at least one House of the Legislature.

Moreover, in States that allow the execution of the mentally retarded the practice is not common.

Prior cases teach that we should focus our attention on statutes expressly addressing the relevant issue.

When we do so we find in the words of our opinion in Enmund against Florida that there is unquestionably consensus in the judgment of the legislatures that have recently addressed the matter.

For reasons stated in the opinion filed with the Clerk today, we agree with the consensus that has emerged.

The number of states that have addressed the issue is less significant than the consistency of their enactments and the direction of the change.

Given the well-known fact that anti-crime legislation is far more popular than legislation providing protections for persons guilty of violent crimes, the large number of states prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded person and the complete absence of states' passing legislation reinstating the power to conduct such executions provides powerful evidence that today our society views mentally retarded offender as categorically less culpable than the average criminal.