2002 June 20

Executing Mentally Retarded People Unconstitutional


In a 6–3 decision on this day, the Supreme Court ruled, in Atkins v. Virginia, that executing persons who are mentally retarded violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment. The case involved Daryl Atkins, who had an IQ of 59. The state of Virginia did not give up, however; in a new proceeding, a court ruled that he was not mentally retarded and could be executed. He was convicted and again sentenced to death. On appeal, however, a judge found evidence of prosecutorial misconduct and commuted Atkins’ sentence to life in prison (because there was evidence that he had participated in the original murder). The state kept trying, but an appeals court ruled there was were no legal grounds for reversing the life sentence.

The Supreme Court: “We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty. Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of our ‘evolving standards of decency,’ we therefore conclude that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution ‘places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life’ of a mentally retarded offender.” Learn more: Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (2002) Listen to the oral arguments before the Supreme Court: http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2001/2001_00_8452 Learn more at the Death Penalty Information Center: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/

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