Until last year, Daryl Atkins was just another convict on
Virginia's death row.
But then, his lawyers filed an appeal asking the US Supreme Court
to overturn his death sentence. They made the request not because
their client is innocent of any involvement in the 1996 murder for
which he was convicted, but because he may not be intelligent enough
to fully appreciate the depth of his wrongdoing and the severity of
the punishment he faces.
With an IQ of 59, Mr. Atkins has been diagnosed as being mildly
mentally retarded. Prosecutors in Virginia dispute that diagnosis
and insist he fully understands the difference between right and
Today, Atkins's case will be heard before the high court, where
the justices are being asked to decide whether capital punishment
for convicted murderers who are mentally retarded violates the
Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
It is potentially a major decision. A victory for Atkins could
establish a constitutional precedent that would block the death
penalty whenever a convicted murderer is diagnosed as being mentally
retarded (regardless of the individual facts of a case). Instead,
the maximum penalty such defendants would face is life in prison
It is unclear how many of the nation's 3,700 death-row inmates
might ultimately be designated as mentally retarded.
"Mental retardation profoundly limits a defendant's personal
culpability for his or her actions," writes Robert Lee in Atkins's
brief to the justices. Mr. Lee also argues that evolving standards
of decency in the US have resulted in the emergence of a national
consensus against execution of the mentally retarded.
Lawyers for the state of Virginia counter that mentally retarded
individuals do not all possess the same level of intellectual
ability. Many have the mental capacity to plan, premeditate, and
deliberate with specific intent to kill, they say.
In the crime that led to Atkins's murder conviction, he and an
associate, William Jones, abducted a US Air Force airman named Eric
Nesbitt from the parking lot of a convenience store in Hampton, Va.,
in August 1996.
At gunpoint, they took $60 out of Mr. Nesbitt's wallet, then
drove him in his own truck to the automated teller machine at his
bank, where they forced him to withdraw another $200. Then they
drove him to a remote location where he begged for his life. He was
shot eight times. The two men stole Nesbitt's truck and left him
beside the road, where he died.
A jury found that Atkins was the triggerman and sentenced him to
death. Mr. Jones, who testified against Atkins as part of a deal
with prosecutors, received a sentence of life in prison. …