Atkins v. Virginia

536 U.S. 304
Brief Filed: 11/01
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
Year of Decision: 2002

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 68KB)


Whether the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits the execution of individuals with mental retardation

Index Topics

Competency (to be executed); Death Penalty Mentally Ill; Mentally Retarded (Rights of)


The Court first addressed this issue in the case of Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989) when the Court ruled 5-4 that the practice did not necessarily violate the Constitution. [APA participated as an amicus in that case in a joint brief arguing two principal points: (1) the disabilities that accompany mental retardation are directly relevant to criminal responsibility and choice of punishment, and (2) the degree of reduction in moral blameworthiness caused by a defendant's mental retardation renders imposition of the death penalty unconstitutional.] The Supreme Court's 1989 ruling that executing the mentally retarded did not violate the Eighth Amendment was based mainly on the fact that only two states (GA and MD) at the time banned executions of mentally retarded criminals. The Court said this was not sufficient evidence of a "national consensus" that the practice violated "standards of decency." In March 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to revisit the question of whether or not executing people with mental retardation violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment in McCarver v. North Carolina, 533 U.S. 975. APA joined with other amici in support of McCarver. However, before the case could be addressed, North Carolina adopted a state statute that made executing the mentally retarded illegal and the case was dismissed as moot. However, the Court agreed to address the issue in Atkins v. Virginia. Atkins was convicted of capital murder and related crimes by a Virginia jury and sentenced to death. Atkins' attorneys claim he is mildly retarded, with an IQ of 59.

APA's Position

APA joined with the American Association of Mental Retardation and other amici to refile the McCarver amicus brief in Atkins. The brief argued that (1) there is a clear and unmistakable national consensus against the imposition of the death penalty on persons with mental retardation, and (2) the American people oppose the execution of individuals with mental retardation because the practice offends our shared moral values. The brief also addressed the established procedures for evaluating the presence of mental retardation, and the attributes of mental retardation that bare on criminal sentencing. The brief further argued that it is widely recognized that the culpability of defendants with mental retardation is reduced by the effects of their intellectual disability, that the disability of mental retardation is not a condition that is the defendant's fault or something for which he is responsible, and that a defendant's mental retardation greatly increases the likelihood of the conviction and execution of a factually innocent individual, and that this risk is intolerable.


The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, ruled that executions of mentally retarded criminals are "cruel and unusual punishments" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The Court cited the growing number of states prohibiting the execution of persons with mental retardation as a reflection of society's view that offenders considered to have mental retardation are categorically less culpable than the average criminal. The Court also reasoned that it was "not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty." The opinion tracked many of the arguments presented in APA's amicus brief and the cited the brief on more than one occasion.