Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.
Atkins v. Virginia Case
One area of controversy related to the death penalty is whether individuals who are deemed to be ''mentally retarded'', or disabled based on diminished ''reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses'' (536 U.S. 307), could be put to death if found guilty of a capital offense. In particular, the Atkins v. Virginia case asks the Court if this is cruel and unusual punishment as defined by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, punishment that is excessive and inappropriate, given the circumstances.
Daryl Atkins was convicted of abducting, robbing, and killing Eric Nesbitt in 1996 and sentenced to death. At trial, his attorneys offered testimony from a forensic psychologist who interviewed him and determined he was ''mildly mentally retarded'' (536 U.S. 308). The prosecution's expert witness disagreed with his diagnosis, claiming Atkins did not have diminished intelligence and so could understand the nature of his crime and the consequences. The Supreme Court of Virginia agreed that Atkins' intelligence was not enough of a reason to change his death sentence to life imprisonment. The Supreme Court agreed to take the case; the legal question at stake was, is it unconstitutional to sentence intellectually disabled convicts to death?
A Brief Look at the Death Penalty in America
In 2015, Nebraska made history when its legislature chose to ban capital punishment, better known as the death penalty. Each state's legislature has the right to decide whether or not crimes in their state are punishable by death and to set the limitations on when and how that punishment can be applied. There are some federal crimes for which the death penalty can be imposed, such as espionage, treason, and murder under certain circumstances (i.e., during a robbery, with a weapon of mass destruction, and so on).
Over the years, various Supreme Court rulings on the death penalty have changed the legal landscape under which it may be used. In 1972, the Supreme Court determined that all existing death penalty laws were cruel and unusual punishment (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238), putting a freeze on convictions and commuting all existing sentences to life imprisonment. Four years later, the Court decided that the death penalty alone was not unconstitutional and so allowed states to begin issuing death penalty convictions once again (Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153). The Court has also ruled that it is not appropriate to sentence a child to death, and that other crimes are not capital offenses, such as in Coker v. Georgia (433 U.S. 584, 1977), where the Court held that rape of an adult woman was not a capital offense.
One of the key factors in the Court's approval of death penalty statues is proportionality. The punishment must be appropriate for the crime. Among the criteria used to decide proportionality are how states treat other crimes, and how other states treat similar crimes.
Decision of the Court
The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a person with mental retardation to death. Justice Stevens explained that the goal of capital punishment is to discourage similar crimes and punish offenders. These goals are not achieved by putting someone to death who is unable to fully understand the nature of the crime.
Stevens explains that these individuals (a) ''know the difference between right and wrong;'' (b) '' often act on impulse rather than … a premeditated plan;'' (c) and ''are followers rather than leaders'' (536 U.S. 319). For these reasons, justice is not served by putting them to death; it does not deter other intellectually impaired people from committing similar crimes because they too may be acting on impulse and following someone they trust without fully understanding the consequences of their actions.
One of the factors the Supreme Court justices considered when deciding the case what whether or not there was a general consensus among states on the issue; of the states with death penalty statues on the books, more than half had laws prohibiting the application of capital punishment to intellectually disabled individuals convicted of capital crimes.
In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that it is not appropriate to sentence intellectually disabled persons to death. These individuals do not necessarily understand the consequences of their actions, even if they understand right and wrong. One of the factors the Supreme Court looked at when making their ruling was how many death penalty states protected intellectually disabled people from that form of punishment.
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