Academic journal article Law and Psychology Review

Jury Pool Members' Beliefs about the Relation between Potential Impairments in Functioning and Mental Retardation: Implications for Atkins-Type Cases

Academic journal article Law and Psychology Review

Jury Pool Members' Beliefs about the Relation between Potential Impairments in Functioning and Mental Retardation: Implications for Atkins-Type Cases

Article excerpt


In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruled that executing offenders with mental retardation (MR) constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment[]" (1) prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. (2) Determining whether a defendant is a person with MR is critically important because such a finding will remove the death penalty as a potential punishment. In Atkins-type cases, MR determinations are made by judges or jurors (fact finders), not mental health experts. These fact finders often do not possess specialized knowledge about MR, and the criteria they use to decide whether a defendant is a person with MR may not be consistent with the diagnostic criteria used by mental health professionals. Mental health professionals involved in Atkins-type cases have speculated that most of the general population believes "people with mental retardation have vastly lower abilities" (3) than people without MR. If this speculation is true, it is likely that fact finders will often fail to identify defendants with more moderate impairments as persons with MR, even when these impairments clearly meet diagnostic criteria for MR.

This article presents the results of an empirical study which examined more than eight hundred jury pool members' perceptions about the relation between potential deficits in functioning and MR and compared their perceptions to those of more than eighty mental health professionals who work with persons with MR on a daily basis. Part II provides background information for the study. It begins by defining MR according to official diagnostic criteria and providing an overview of the role jurors play in making MR determinations. Next, the article identifies the areas of functioning examined in the study and explains why jurors are expected to have more accurate perceptions in some areas than others. Part III details the methods used in the study. Part IV presents the results of the study, including comparisons between jury pool members' and mental health professionals' responses. Part V uses the study results to identify implications for legal and mental health practitioners. Part VI summarizes the study and concludes.


A. Defining MR and Examining the Role of Fact Finders in Making MR Determinations

The Supreme Court did not endorse a specific definition of MR to be applied by state courts in the Atkins decision; however, it implied that state statutes which define MR should generally conform to the diagnostic criteria devised by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and American Psychiatric Association (APA), (4) which are among the most well-known and widely-used criteria in the mental health field. While the AAIDD and APA standards differ in some respects, (5) each identifies three basic components for diagnosing MR: (a) significant subaverage intelligence, (b) significant impairment in adaptive functioning, and (c) evidence that the first two components have been present since the beginning of the developmental period, which is usually before age eighteen. (6)

The AAIDD and APA standards for diagnosing MR were designed for use by mental health professionals, not fact finders. However, while mental health professionals often testify as expert witnesses in Atkins-type cases, (7) fact finders ultimately determine whether the defendant is a person with MR. (8) In fact, the criteria that fact finders use to make decisions about MR in any given case may not necessarily follow AAIDD or APA diagnostic criteria. These points were openly acknowledged in Ex parte Briseno when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stated that, while mental health professionals might be able to diagnose a capital defendant with MR, "the ultimate issue of whether [the defendant] is, in fact, mentally retarded for purposes of the Eighth Amendment ban on excessive punishment is one for the finder of fact." (9) Moreover, the court noted that, in addition to diagnostic standards, fact finders might also focus upon other aspects of the defendant's behavior, such as behavior during the crime, (10) a position that is in direct opposition to the recommendations of the AAIDD. …

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