Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Death Penalty Opponents Enjoy Rare Victory. (Column)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Death Penalty Opponents Enjoy Rare Victory. (Column)

Article excerpt

Daryl Atkins, an African-American child born in southern Virginia to an unstable couple, failed second grade and was held back. He struggled in third grade and was promoted. His grades in fifth grade were abysmal; there are no records for sixth grade.

In the seventh grade, he was finally referred for testing for special education but inexplicably did not receive it. His sole success in school came in those years when he was placed in a structured environment for slow learners. Atkins left school without graduating. His parents divorced when he was 8 years old. Atkins began substance abuse at the age of 18, had a criminal record by 21. The murder for which he was to be executed occurred on Aug. 7, 1996.

The state of Virginia refused to accept any of the evidence offered to show that Atkins was retarded. Dr. Nolan, a qualified psychologist, testified that Atkins had an IQ of 59, in the lowest 1 percent of the nation.

On June 20, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Atkins. In a 6 to 3 split, the court ruled that retarded persons may not be executed. That reversed its own 1989 ruling to the contrary. It did not concede error but asserted that the nation had developed a consensus against executing the retarded.

The Catholic position on the execution of anyone--especially the retarded--was eloquently stated in a friend of the court brief by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Experts in the field of mental retardation along with authorities on international human rights told the court that only Japan and Kyrgyzstan allow the execution of the retarded. Kyrgyzstan has now announced that it will no longer condemn the retarded to death.

The majority view, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, is short and decisive: The retarded may not be executed. It is simply unjust to execute someone who by definition cannot appreciate the heinousness of his acts. …

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