Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

Equal Protection from Execution: Expanding Atkins to Include Mentally Impaired Offenders

Academic journal article Case Western Reserve Law Review

Equal Protection from Execution: Expanding Atkins to Include Mentally Impaired Offenders

Article excerpt

"Once a substantive right or restriction is recognized in the Constitution ... its enforcement is in no way confined to the rudimentary process deemed adequate in ages past." (1)

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court announced that the execution of mentally retarded offenders is unconstitutional, (2) under the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. (3) This decision purported to provide absolute protection against execution for such offenders, whom the Court characterized as "know[ing] the difference between right and wrong and [being] competent to stand trial ... [but having] diminished capacities" and a corresponding reduced culpability for their crimes. (4) In practice, however, the Atkins v. Virginia decision has allowed states to narrow that protection because the Court failed to define the precise group its ruling encompassed. By "leav[ing] to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction," (5) including defining the term "mental retardation," Atkins shifted the debate from whether to execute mentally retarded offenders to who qualifies as "mentally retarded." Not surprisingly, this debate has produced definitions of mental retardation that vary among the states. (6)

There is, however, one common element of states' mental retardation definitions: the requirement that symptoms manifest before adulthood. This Comment argues that the juvenile-onset requirement is inappropriate in the legal context and arguably violates the Equal Protection Clause because it requires different punishments for similarly impaired offenders based solely on the legally insignificant question of when their retardation began. (7) Part I provides background information on the Atkins decision itself. Part II explores potential ways to define mental retardation, the definitions that states have adopted, and the role of the juvenile-onset requirement in those definitions. Part HI considers possible equal protection challenges to the juvenile-onset requirement, including the appropriate level of judicial scrutiny and possible rationales a state could proffer to justify the requirement.

I. THE ATKINS V. VIRGINIA DECISION

In Atkins, the Supreme Court held that the execution of mentally retarded offenders is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. (8) To reach its conclusion, the Court first sought and found a national consensus against the practice and then brought its "own judgment ... to bear on the question of [the punishment's] acceptability." (9)

In the first prong of its analysis, the Atkins Court surveyed the number of states refusing, either through legislation or actual practice, to execute mentally retarded offenders, (10) and noted the "consistency of the direction of change" away from the practice. (11) The Court found further evidence of consensus in the opinions of mental health organizations, religious groups, the international community, and the American public. (12) The Court concluded that a national consensus against executing mentally retarded offenders existed, (13) though it noted that "[n]ot all people who claim to be mentally retarded will be so impaired as to fall within the range of mentally retarded offenders about whom there is a national consensus." (14) As a result, though it had already cited two definitions widely used by mental health professionals, (15) the Court declined to define the term "mental retardation" and instead directed the states to adopt their own definitions. (16)

To complete its Eighth Amendment analysis, the Court then articulated its own reasons for finding capital punishment cruel and unusual for mentally retarded offenders. The Court explained that mentally retarded offenders possess a lesser culpability than other offenders because of their diminished capacity to understand and process information, communicate with others, abstract from mistakes, learn from experience, engage in logical reasoning, control impulses, and understand the reactions of others. …

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