The Abolitionist Action Committee

AAC is an ad-hoc group of individuals committed to highly visible and effective public
education for alternatives to the death penalty through nonviolent direct action.
 

 

US Supreme Court looks at the issue of executions of the mentally retarded:

Atkins v. Virginia, No. 00-8452

Does execution of a mentally retarded person violate the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment? The Virginia Supreme Court said no.

The U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to revisit the constitutionality of capital punishment for the mentally retarded in McCarver V. North Carolina, No. 00-8727. But, on Sept. 25, the justices dismissed the writ of certiorari in that case as improvidently granted. The North Carolina challenge became moot after the state enacted a law banning the execution of the mentally retarded and applied the law retroactively.

Daryl Renard Atkins, 23, has been on Virginia's death row since 1998. He was convicted of the 1996 abduction and murder of Eric Nesbitt, a U.S. airman at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va. His lawyers contend he has an IQ score of 59 and no one has been executed in Virginia with a score that low.

The Virginia Supreme Court refused to overturn his sentence based on his mental retardation.

"The jury was instructed in the present case to consider any evidence in mitigation of the offense, and the jury obviously found that Atkins' IQ score did not mitigate his culpability for the murder of Nesbitt," the state high court said.

There are 38 states that permit capital punishment; of those 38 states, 20 allow executions of the mentally retarded, who are generally defined as persons with IQs lower than 70. But 18 death penalty states forbid such executions, a 9-fold increase since 1989. 12 states and the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty.

Atkins' counsel and death penalty opponents argue that the increase in states forbidding execution of the mentally retarded is crucial evidence of a national consensus that such executions are cruel and unusual.

But the state contends those executions do not contravene the practices that were condemned when the Bill of Rights was adopted or the evolving standards of decency.


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