An Empirical Look at Atkins vs. Virginia and its Application in Capital Cases
John H. Blume
Cornell Law School
Sheri Lynn Johnson
Cornell Law School
New York University (NYU)
September 15, 2009
Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-021
Tennessee Law Review, Vol. 76, 2009
In Atkins vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court declared that evolving standards of decency and the Eighth Amendment prohibit the death penalty for individuals with intellectual disability (formerly, "mental retardation"). Both supporters and opponents of the categorical exemption, however, have criticized the Atkins opinion. The Atkins dissent, for example, urged that the decision would open the gates of litigation to a flood of frivolous claims. Another prominent criticism, heard from those more supportive of the Court's ruling, has been that the language the Court used communicating that states must "generally conform" to the clinical definitions of mental retardation is ambiguous enough to permit states to stray from the clinical definitions and, consequently, for death eligibility to vary depending upon the jurisdiction in which a defendant is charged. This Article presents preliminary data responsive to these issues, and reports three basic findings. First, Atkins has not opened floodgates of non-meritorious litigation. Second, the success rates for Atkins claims vary dramatically between states and state deviations from the clinical definitions appear to have a palpable impact. Third, as compared to their representation on death row, African-American defendants both file and win a disproportionately high number of Atkins claims.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 16
Date posted: September 15, 2009
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