The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids "cruel and unusual punishments." The United States Supreme Court has refused to state categorically that the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment. But the Court now has held that the execution of a retarded person is cruel and unusual.
As a practical matter, the Court's decision will make little difference in the prosecution of capital cases. Defense lawyers representing retarded persons already plead with juries that their clients should not be executed because they are retarded. The High Court's decision now will forbid execution if a jury finds that the defendant is retarded. That decision remains in the jury's hands where, in your Guide's opinion, that decision belongs.
Daryl Atkins and William Jones spent the day of August 16, 1996, drinking and smoking marijuana. Late that evening, the two decided to rob a customer at a convenience store. Their victim turned out to be Eric Nesbitt, an airman stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.
Atkins and Jones drove Nesbitt to an ATM. In full view of the security cameras, they forced Nesbitt to withdraw $200. Then they drove Nesbitt to an isolated area where they shot him eight times.
After his arrest, Jones cut a deal with the prosecutors. He would plead guilty to capital murder but would be spared the death penalty. In exchange for a life sentence, he would testify against Atkins. At trial, Jones testified that Atkins shot Nesbitt while Atkins said Jones killed him. The jury believed Jones and sentenced Atkins to death.
At sentencing, a forensic psychologist testified that Atkins was mildly mentally retarded with an IQ of 59. The prosecutor's expert witness testified that Atkins was of at least average intelligence. He diagnosed Atkins with "antisocial personality disorder" and attributed Atkins' poor marks in school to Atkins' bad attitude. The prosecution also noted that Atkins had sixteen prior felony convictions.
The Supreme Court's Decision
Following established law, the Supreme Court stated that contemporary standards of decency determine whether a punishment is cruel and unusual. Justice Stevens, writing for the Court, surveyed state legislative actions as well as various studies and polls. He concluded that a national consensus exists that a retarded person should not be put to death. In a sarcastic dissent, Justice Scalia accused the majority of affixing its own morality to the Constitution. Justice Scalia made the point that a jury is the best indicator of community standards because it is drawn from the community.
What Does It All Mean?
The Supreme Court did not set Atkins free. It ordered that the case be "remanded for further proceedings." As a practical matter, this means that the prosecution either must agree to a life sentence for Atkins or conduct another sentencing hearing. Although a jury already heard evidence whether Atkins was retarded, another jury must actually decide whether he is retarded. If the jury decides that Atkins is retarded, Atkins cannot be sentenced to death.
Why is this important? The law already requires a jury to consider mitigating evidence when deciding a capital defendant's sentence. Mitigating evidence includes evidence of a defendants' character and circumstances. Mental retardation is important to a defendant's character and circumstances. But it is possible for a jury to conclude that a defendant should be sentenced to death even though he is retarded if the jury does not consider the mental retardation to be mitigating and there is no other evidence of mitigation.
Justice Stevens' opinion removes this possibility. In short, the Court has ruled that a jury cannot be trusted to spare a retarded defendant the death penalty. Instead, justice Stevens relies on a national consensus against the death penalty. This consensus view is held by persons who, unlike the jury, did not hear the evidence against the accused. In the Court's opinion, no matter what the defendant did, he cannot be sentenced to death if he is retarded.
How will this decision affect a jury? Your Guide believes that it will not change a single result. In Atkins' own case the experts disagreed whether Atkins was retarded. The jury obviously believed that regardless whether Atkins bore the label "retarded," he should be put to death. Surely if Atkins' mental capability reduced his culpability in the murder, the jury would not have sentenced him to death. If the prosecutor decides to seek the death penalty again, your Guide predicts another death sentence.