In Death Row Cases, Courts Debate Retardation


In a case brought on behalf of Daryl Atkins, a Virginia death-row inmate with an I.Q. of 59, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of the mentally retarded. The 2002 ruling has not helped Atkins, says the New York Times, because the high court did not decide if he falls within accepted definitions of retardation. Nor did it give judges and legislators much guidance on how the ban should be applied in other cases.

In hundreds of cases, courts are struggling with questions left open by the Atkins case: Who qualifies as retarded? Who decides whether a defendant is retarded, a judge or a jury? Should this decision come before or at a capital trial?

Soon, a jury in Yorktown, Va., will decide whether Atkins is retarded. Its answer will determine whether he receives a life sentence for his role in a 1996 murder. No one disputes that Mr. Atkins’s I.Q. score is in the lowest 1 percent of the population, but a prosecutor says this should not spare him.

Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, estimates that 300 of the 3,500 people on death row in the U.S. are mentally retarded under the commonly accepted standard.


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