Atkins v. Virginia

Decision Date20 June 2002
Docket NumberNo. 00-8452.,00-8452.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court


Petitioner Atkins was convicted of capital murder and related crimes by a Virginia jury and sentenced to death. Affirming, the Virginia Supreme Court relied on Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U. S. 302, in rejecting Atkins' contention that he could not be sentenced to death because he is mentally retarded.

Held: Executions of mentally retarded criminals are "cruel and unusual punishments" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 311-321.

(a) A punishment is "excessive," and therefore prohibited by the Amendment, if it is not graduated and proportioned to the offense. E. g., Weems v. United States, 217 U. S. 349, 367. An excessiveness claim is judged by currently prevailing standards of decency. Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 100-101. Proportionality review under such evolving standards should be informed by objective factors to the maximum possible extent, see, e. g., Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U. S. 957, 1000, the clearest and most reliable of which is the legislation enacted by the country's legislatures, Penry, 492 U. S., at 331. In addition to objective evidence, the Constitution contemplates that this Court will bring its own judgment to bear by asking whether there is reason to agree or disagree with the judgment reached by the citizenry and its legislators, e. g., Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584, 597. Pp. 311-313.

(b) Much has changed since Penry's conclusion that the two state statutes then existing that prohibited such executions, even when added to the 14 States that had rejected capital punishment completely, did not provide sufficient evidence of a consensus. 492 U. S., at 334. Subsequently, a significant number of States have concluded that death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal, and similar bills have passed at least one house in other States. It is not so much the number of these States that is significant, but the consistency of the direction of change. Given that anticrime legislation is far more popular than legislation protecting violent criminals, 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 evidence carries even greater force when it is noted that the legislatures addressing the issue have voted overwhelmingly in favor of the prohibition. Moreover, even in States allowing the execution of mentally retarded offenders, the practice is uncommon. Pp. 313-317.

(c) An independent evaluation of the issue reveals no reason for the Court to disagree with the legislative consensus. Clinical definitions of mental retardation require not only subaverage intellectual functioning, but also significant limitations in adaptive skills. Mentally retarded persons frequently know the difference between right and wrong and are competent to stand trial, but, by definition, they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand others' reactions. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability. In light of these deficiencies, the Court's death penalty jurisprudence provides two reasons to agree with the legislative consensus. First, there is a serious question whether either justification underpinning the death penalty — retribution and deterrence of capital crimes — applies to mentally retarded offenders. As to retribution, the severity of the appropriate punishment necessarily depends on the offender's culpability. If the culpability of the average murderer is insufficient to justify imposition of death, see Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U. S. 420, 433, the lesser culpability of the mentally retarded offender surely does not merit that form of retribution. As to deterrence, the same cognitive and behavioral impairments that make mentally retarded defendants less morally culpable also make it less likely that they can process the information of the possibility of execution as a penalty and, as a result, control their conduct based upon that information. Nor will exempting the mentally retarded from execution lessen the death penalty's deterrent effect with respect to offenders who are not mentally retarded. Second, 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. Pp. 317-321.

260 Va. 375, 534 S. E. 2d 312, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA and THOMAS, JJ., joined, post, p. 321. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and THOMAS, J., joined, post, p. 337.

James W. Ellis argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Robert E. Lee, by appointment of the Court, 534 U. S. 1122, Mark E. Olive, and Charles E. Haden.

Pamela A. Rumpz, Assistant Attorney General of Virginia, argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief was Randolph A. Beales, Attorney General.*

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Those mentally retarded persons who meet the law's requirements for criminal responsibility should be tried and punished when they commit crimes. 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 characterizes 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 13 years since we decided Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U. S. 302 (1989), the American public, legislators, scholars, and judges have deliberated over the question whether the death penalty should ever be imposed on a mentally retarded 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.


Petitioner, Daryl Renard Atkins, was convicted of abduction, armed robbery, and capital murder, and sentenced to death. At approximately midnight on August 16, 1996, Atkins and William Jones, armed with a semiautomatic handgun, abducted Eric Nesbitt, robbed him of the money on his person, drove him to an automated teller machine in his pickup truck where cameras recorded their withdrawal of additional cash, then took him to an isolated location where he was shot eight times and killed.

Jones and Atkins both testified in the guilt phase of Atkins' trial.1 Each confirmed most of the details in the other's account of the incident, with the important exception that each stated that the other had actually shot and killed Nesbitt. Jones' testimony, which was both more coherent and credible than Atkins', was obviously credited by the jury and was sufficient to establish Atkins' guilt.2 At the penalty phase of the trial, the State introduced victim impact evidence and proved two aggravating circumstances: future dangerousness and "vileness of the offense." To prove future dangerousness, the State relied on Atkins' prior felony convictions as well as the testimony of four victims of earlier robberies and assaults. To prove the second aggravator, the prosecution relied upon the trial record, including pictures of the deceased's body and the autopsy report.

In the penalty phase, the defense relied on one witness, Dr. Evan Nelson, a forensic psychologist who had evaluated Atkins before trial and concluded that he was "mildly mentally retarded."3 His conclusion was based on interviews with people who knew Atkins,4 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 59.5

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. 257 Va. 160, 510 S. E. 2d 445 (1999). At the resentencing, Dr. Nelson again testified. The State presented an expert rebuttal witness, Dr. Stanton Samenow, 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.6 App. 476. The jury again sentenced Atkins to death.

The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the imposition of the death penalty. 260 Va. 375, 385, 534 S. E. 2d 312, 318 (2000). Atkins did not argue before the Virginia Supreme Court that his sentence was disproportionate to penalties imposed for similar crimes in Virginia, but he did contend "that he is mentally retarded and thus cannot be sentenced to death." Id., at 386, 534 S. E. 2d, at 318. The majority of the state court rejected this contention, relying on our holding in Penry. 260 Va., at 387, 534 S. E. 2d, at 319. The court was "not willing to commute Atkins' sentence of death to life imprisonment merely because of his IQ score." Id., at 390, 534 S. E. 2d, at 321.

Justice Hassell and Justice Koontz dissented. They rejected Dr. Samenow's opinion that Atkins possesses average intelligence as "incredulous as a...

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