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Around midnight on August 16, 1996, following a day spent together drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, 18 year old Daryl Atkins and his accomplice, William Jones, walked to a nearby convenience store where they abducted Eric Nesbitt, an airman from nearby Langley Air Force Base. Unsatisfied with the $60 they found in his wallet, Atkins and Jones drove Nesbitt in his own vehicle to a nearby ATM and forced him to withdraw a further $200. In spite of Nesbitt's pleas, the two abductors then drove him to an isolated location, where he was shot eight times, killing him.
Footage of Atkins and Jones in the vehicle with Nesbitt were captured on the ATM's CCTV camera, which was of the two men with Nesbitt in the middle and leaning across Jones to withdraw money, and further forensic evidence implicating the two were found in Nesbitt's abandoned vehicle. The two suspects were quickly tracked down and arrested. In custody, each man claimed that the other had pulled the trigger. Atkins' version of the events, however, was found to contain a number of inconsistencies. Doubts concerning Atkins's testimony were strengthened when a cell-mate claimed that Atkins had confessed to him that he had shot Nesbitt. A deal of life imprisonment was negotiated with Jones in return for his full testimony against Atkins. The jury decided that Jones' version of events was the more coherent and credible, and convicted Atkins of capital murder.
During the penalty phase of the trial, the defense presented Atkins's school records and the results of an IQ test carried out by clinical psychologist Dr. Evan Nelson confirmed that he had an IQ of 59. On this basis they proposed that he was "mildly mentally retarded". Atkins was nevertheless sentenced to death.
On appeal, the Atkins's school records and the results of an Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the conviction but reversed the sentence after finding that an improper sentencing verdict form had been used. At retrial, the prosecution proved two aggravating factors under Virginia law—that Atkins posed a risk of "future dangerousness" based on a string of previous violent convictions, and that the offense was committed in a vile manner. The state's witness, Dr. Stanton Samenow, countered the defense's arguments that Atkins was mentally retarded, by stating that Atkins's vocabulary, general knowledge and behavior suggested that he possessed at least average intelligence. As a result, Atkins's death sentence was upheld. The Virginia Supreme Court subsequently affirmed the sentence based on a prior Supreme Court decision, Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989). Justice Cynthia D. Kinser authored the five-member majority. Justices Leroy RountreeHassell, Sr. and Lawrence L. Koontz, Jr. each authored dissenting opinions and joined in each other's dissent.
Because of what it perceived to be a shift in the judgments of state legislatures as to whether the mentally retarded are appropriate candidates for execution in the thirteen years since Penry was decided, the Supreme Court agreed to review Atkins' death sentence. The Court heard oral arguments in the case on February 20, 2002.