Atkins v. Virginia

536 U.S. 304, 122 S. Ct. 2242 (2002)

Quick Summary

The case involves whether the execution of mentally retarded criminals is considered a cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court held that executing mentally retarded criminals violates the Eighth Amendment, as it goes against evolving standards of decency and does not serve the purposes of retribution or deterrence.

Facts of the Case

Atkins and William Jones were convicted for abducting Eric Nesbitt, robbing him, and ultimately killing him. During the trial, both Atkins and Jones testified with different accounts of the incident but confirmed most details of each other’s testimony. The jury sentenced Atkins to death based on aggravating circumstances, including future dangerousness and “vileness of the offense.” The defense argued that Atkins was mildly mentally retarded based on evaluations by a forensic psychologist.

Procedural Posture and History

The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the imposition of the death penalty. Atkins filed for certiorari to revisit the issue first addressed in Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989). The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether executing mentally retarded individuals is considered a cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Rule of Law

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court analyzed evolving standards of decency regarding the execution of mentally retarded individuals. They recognized that mental retardation significantly impairs reasoning, judgment, and impulse control, which diminishes moral culpability.

Additionally, their impairments can undermine the fairness and reliability of capital proceedings. The Court noted that since their previous decision in Penry v. Lynaugh, the consensus has developed against executing mentally retarded criminals. They found that the severity of the punishment should be proportional to the offender’s culpability and that mental retardation diminishes personal culpability.

The Court also considered the two justifications for the death penalty:
1) Retribution and 2) Deterrence.

With regards to Retribution, they argued that mentally retarded offenders have lesser culpability than average murderers, therefore making the death penalty inappropriate.

In terms of Deterrence, mentally retarded individuals are less likely to process information about the possibility of execution and control their behavior based on that information. Their reduced capacity creates a risk of false confessions and difficulty presenting mitigating evidence.


The Supreme Court held that executing mentally retarded individuals is considered a violation of the Eighth Amendment. They noted that there has been a national consensus against this practice, as demonstrated by legislative action in multiple states.

Dissenting Opinions

Chief Justice Rehnquist, joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas, dissented from the majority opinion. They disagreed with the Court’s reliance on international laws, professional organization’s views, and opinion polls in determining evolving standards of decency. They argued that legislative enactments and practices of sentencing juries in America should be the primary indicators for determining contemporary values regarding punishment.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What factors made the Court consider executing mildly intellectually disabled individuals unconstitutional?

The Court considered the evolving standards of decency, legislative prohibitions, and diminished moral culpability due to cognitive impairments.

What role did cognitive impairments play in the Court's decision?

Cognitive impairments reduced moral culpability, making execution of the mentally retarded unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

  • For example: The Court argued that intellectual disabilities diminish individuals’ capacity for reasoned decision-making, reducing their culpability for criminal acts.


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