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Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons. Capital punishment of mentally retarded and juvenile offenders. Atkins v. Virginia , 536 U.S. 304 (2002).

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Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons

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Atkins v virginia and roper v simmons l.jpg

Atkins v. VirginiaandRoper v. Simmons

Capital punishment of mentally retarded and juvenile offenders

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Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002)

  • Issue: Does imposing the death penalty on a mentally retarded offender constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” as prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?

  • The facts

    • Daryl Renard Atkins and William Jones abducted the victim, robbed him, and shot him 8 times

    • Both Atkins and Jones were indicted for first-degree murder

    • Jones escaped the death penalty by pleading guilty in exchange for his testimony against Atkins

    • Both Atkins and Jones testified that the other was the shooter, but the jury believed Jones and convicted Atkins

      • Atkins’ statement didn’t match what he told police upon arrest

      • Jones was wise enough not to make an initial statement to the police – his testimony was more coherent than Atkins’, and thus more credible

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Atkins trial – penalty phase

  • The State’s evidence

    • Victim impact evidence

    • Aggravating circumstances

      • Future dangerousness (shown by prior convictions, victim testimony)

      • Vileness of the offense (shown by the trial record)

  • The Defense’s evidence

    • Expert testimony: Dr. Evan Nelson, forensic psychologist

  • State rebuttal evidence (at resentencing)

    • Expert testimony: Dr. Stanton Samenow

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Dr. Nelson’s testimony (Atkins)

  • Research

    • Interviews – with Atkins, members of his family, deputies at the jail where Atkins had been incarcerated for the past 18 months)

    • Records – school, court

      • Investigative reports

      • Atkins’ statement to police

    • IQ Test – Atkins scored a 59

  • Conclusion: Atkins is “mildly mentally retarded.”

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Dr. Nelson’s evidence – IQ test

  • Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scales test (WAIS-III)

    • Standard in U.S. for assessing intellectual functioning

    • Scoring: add points earned on 14 subtests, convert raw score to scaled score using formula

    • Full-scale score range: 45-155

    • Mean score: 100 (believed to indicate average level of cognitive functioning)

  • Atkins’ full scale score: 59

    • Lower than over 99 percent of the population

    • Falls within the range identified in the American Psychiatric Association’s description of mild mental retardation (50-70)

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Definitions of mental retardation

  • American Association of Mental Retardation

    • Subaverage intellectual functioning

    • Limitations in 3 or more adaptive skill areas

      • Including communication, self-care, social skills, self-direction, health and safety, functional academics, work

    • Manifests before age 18

  • American Psychiatric Association – definition similar to above

    • “Mild” mental retardation: IQ of 50-55 to about 70

  • World Health Organization – definition similar to above

    • Acknowledges that standardized intelligence tests are conventional way to estimate degrees of mental retardation

  • Statutory definitions generally conform to clinical definitions

    • Many statutes include cutoff IQ of 70

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Dr. Nelson’s research

  • Used all available evidence

    • Observation – school and court records, interview with Atkins, and interviews with Atkins’ family and guards

    • Testing – standardized IQ test, conventional way to estimate degree of mental retardation

  • WAIS-III instrument Nelson used is well-established

    • Standard means of measuring cognitive ability in the United States

    • Up-to-date – last revised in 1997

    • Population used to standardize the test was intended to be representative of U.S. adult population

      • 1981 version – 1,800 adults, ages 16-74; 1997 version – ages 16-89

      • No published criticisms of sample adequacy; only positive reviews

  • Strength – focus on accepted, validated definitions and measurements

  • Possible weakness – perhaps a greater focus on adaptive skills is necessary for a more well-rounded assessment of mental retardation

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Dr. Samenow’s testimony (Virginia)

  • Research

    • Observation – 2 interviews with Atkins, school records, interviews with correctional staff

    • Testing – questions taken from 1972 Wechsler Memory Scale (WMS)

  • Conclusions

    • Atkins of average intelligence, not mentally retarded

    • Antisocial personality disorder

    • Atkins is “did poorly [in school] because he did not want to do what he was required to do”

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Dr. Samenow’s research

  • Did not use all available evidence (family interviews, court records, IQ test) – suggests biased selection of evidence

  • Used questions from Wechsler Memory Scale rather than a conventional IQ test

    • Did not even use full test, or latest version (updated 1997)

    • Did not measure intellectual ability as a whole, only one component of (memory)

  • Conclusions based on subjective (likely biased) judgments and a possibly outdated instrument, rather than on clinical definitions and widely accepted methods

  • Perhaps if Samenow had challenged the accuracy of the IQ test results, and demonstrated that the measurements and methods he used were superior, his testimony would be stronger

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Court’s opinion

  • Eighth Amendment requires punishment to be proportionate to crime, as assessed by current and evolving standards

  • State legislation is best objective evidence of contemporary values

    • Since 1989 Penry decision (allowing execution of mentally retarded offenders), large number of states prohibited execution of mentally retarded persons, few permitted it – consistent change

    • Court finds consensus: mentally retarded persons can’t be executed

  • Court must ask if there is reason to disagree with prevailing judgment

    • Mentally retarded persons have diminished capacities to understand and process information, communicate, learn from experience, engage in logical reasoning, control impulses, understand others’ reactions

    • Executing them does not “measurably contribute” to capital punishment goals:

      • Retribution- they are less morally culpable, therefore not deserving of most extreme sanction available

      • Deterrence- they can’t make calculated decisions such that death penalty would deter them (controlling impulses, logical reasoning, learning from experience)

    • Risk of wrongful execution increases

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Influence of scientific evidence

  • Expert testimony did not bear as heavily on the Court’s decision as evidence of nationwide consensus did

    • Experts debated whether Atkins was mentally retarded, while the Court decided whether the mentally retarded may be capitally punished

  • General scientific knowledge of the intellectual and behavioral limitations of mentally retarded persons supported the national consensus and the Court’s assertions about how an offender’s cognitive impairments influence his culpability

  • In 2005, the Court decides the constitutionality of executing juveniles in Roper v. Simmons

    • Relies heavily on its reasoning in Atkins

    • Evidence shows the two populations demonstrate similar developmental deficiencies that affect their culpability

  • Possible implications: Will Atkins raise the number of defendants claiming to have mental deficiencies? increase the legal system’s reliance on expert testimony?

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Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)

  • Issue: Is it permissible, under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, to execute a juvenile offender who was over 15 but under 18 years old at the time the offense was committed?

  • The crime

    • Christopher Simmons, 17-year-old high school junior, discussed with friends his desire to commit a burglary and murder

    • Late one night, Simmons and a friend, Charles Benjamin, entered the home of the victim, Shirley Crook

    • Simmons and Benjamin used duct tape to cover the victim’s eyes and mouth and bind her hands, and drove her in her minivan to a state park

    • They covered her head with a towel, wrapped her whole face in duct tape, bound her hands and feet with electrical wire, and threw her from a bridge to drown in the Meramec River

    • Simmons later bragged to friends that he killed the victim “because the bitch seen my face”

    • Once arrested, Simmons confessed to the crime and agreed to reenact it on video

  • At trial, Simmons was tried as an adult, and a jury found him guilty of murder – State sought death penalty

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Roper trial – penalty phase

  • State’s evidence – aggravating factors

    • Murder committed for money

    • Murder committed for purpose of avoiding lawful arrest

    • Murder was depraved, vile, horrible, inhuman

  • Simmons’ evidence – mitigating factors

    • No prior offenses

    • Responsibilities caring for younger brothers and grandmother

    • Relationships with family and friends

  • Age – mitigating or aggravating?

    • Simmons: juveniles can’t drink, serve on juries, or see certain movies, because they aren’t responsible enough in eyes of legislature

    • State: 17-year-old murderer is a scary thought, an aggravating factor

  • Simmons sentenced to death, post-judgment relief denied

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Roper after Atkins

  • Atkins prohibited execution of mentally retarded persons

  • Simmons argued Atkins reasoning established unconstitutionality of imposing death penalty on juveniles who were under 18 at time of offense

    • Thompson (1988) forbid imposing death penalty on juveniles under 16 at time of offense – Simmons wanted to extend to 16 and 17 year olds as well

  • Missouri Supreme Court set aside the death sentence, citing a national consensus

    • 18 states bar execution of juveniles

    • 12 states bar all executions

    • 5 states established 18 as minimum age

    • 0 states lowered minimum age of execution below 18

  • Supreme Court affirmed

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Roper Court’s opinion

  • Objective indicia of consensus (legislation): juveniles are less culpable than the average criminal (as the mentally retarded were found to be in Atkins)

    • 18 states prohibit juvenile death penalty

    • 12 states prohibit death penalty altogether

    • 20 states have no formal prohibition, but the practice is infrequent

    • Rate of change in state legislation was much faster from Penry to Atkins than from Stanford to Roper

      • Change is still consistent and significant

      • More states already prohibited executing juveniles than the mentally retarded

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Roper Court’s opinion

  • Independent judgment of Court: no reason to doubt consensus

    • 3 differences between juveniles under 18 and adults show juveniles can’t reliably be classified among worst or most deserving offenders

      • Impetuous and ill-considered decision-making

      • Susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures

      • Transitory character means personality traits are more temporary

    • Justifications for death penalty don’t apply to juveniles with same force as adults

      • Retribution- diminished culpability means most severe penalty is disproportionate

      • Deterrence- impact unclear, but evidence suggests they’re less susceptible

    • Risk of error – executing juvenile despite insufficient culpability – is “unacceptable likelihood” if individualized considerations are allowed

      • Court wants to ensure age is a mitigating, not aggravating, factor for juveniles

      • If expert psychologists may not diagnose a juvenile under 18 with antisocial personality disorder, courts cannot allow jurors to issue far graver condemnation

    • Age 18 limit is both over- and under-inclusive, like any categorical rule, but a line must be drawn, and this is where society draws the line for many other purposes

    • World community – U.S. the only country still officially allowing juvenile death penalty

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Research – Amici Curiae Brief

  • Filed by 8 highly reputable professional associations

    • oldest and largest in their fields (including the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, etc.)

  • More a summary of existing knowledge than a single study

    • Observational – e.g. Cauffman study found adolescents deficient in responsibility, perspective, and temperance, psychosocial maturity incomplete until age 19

      • 1000 adults and adolescents

      • Possible problems: sample may not be representative, measurement methods may not eliminate researcher bias

    • Brain imaging

      • More active amygdala (related to aggression, anger, fear), less active frontal lobes (related to impulse control, risk assessment, moral reasoning) than adults

      • Frontal lobes are last to mature (shown by myelination, pruning)

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Research – Amici Curiae Brief

  • Conclusions

    • Adolescents inherently more prone to risk-taking behavior, less capable of resisting impulses

      • Deficiencies skew adolescent risk-benefit analysis (too much weight to immediate gain, not enough to future loss)

      • Stress, emotion, and peer pressure weigh more heavily on adolescents than adults, skew risk-benefit analyses further

    • To extent that adolescents who commit capital offenses suffer from psychological disturbances, they can be expected to function at sub-standard levels

      • Normal adolescents can't be expected to transcend their own capacities to operate at same level of impulse control or judgment as adults

      • Adolescents suffering from brain trauma, dysfunctional home life, or violence can't be expected to operate even at standard adolescent levels

    • Executing older adolescents does not serve recognized purposes of death penalty

      • Atkins reasoning on mentally retarded individuals applies: diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses and to understand the reactions of others

      • Thompson reasoning on juveniles under 16 applies: less culpable because of their inexperience, emotionality, susceptibility to peer pressure, and impulsivity

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Research – Amici Curiae Brief

  • Combined with knowledge referenced in Atkins, scientific evidence crucial to Roper

    • Evidence of same deficiencies in mentally retarded individuals and juveniles allowed Court to extend reduced culpability and ineligibility for death penalty from one population to the other

    • Court credits many assertions made by amici (scientific support for existing generalizations)

  • Possible weaknesses

    • Juvenile capital offenders most likely manifest deficiencies more than average adolescent – Does this strengthen Simmons’ case, or State’s?

    • Some evidence of adolescent population inapplicable to Simmons’ case

      • Impetuousness, impulse control – Simmons clearly premeditated the murder

      • Susceptibility – Simmons clearly initiated the crime (but peer pressure could operate indirectly, evidenced by bragging and involvement of friends in crime)

  • Possible implications of using science to reduce culpability -- where to draw the line?

    • To what extent can psychology and biology excuse crime?

    • How much control can legal system expect offenders to exercise over biological inclinations?

    • Path of reasoning could, in extreme, lead to fatalistic view of humanity: humans nothing more than biological functions, never responsible for actions or decisions

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