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An Empirical Look at Atkins vs. Virginia and its Application in Capital Cases

16 Pages Posted: 15 Sep 2009  

John H. Blume III

Cornell Law School

Sheri Lynn Johnson

Cornell Law School

Christopher Seeds

New York University (NYU)

Date Written: September 15, 2009

Abstract

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.

Suggested Citation

Blume, John H. and Johnson, Sheri Lynn and Seeds, Christopher, An Empirical Look at Atkins vs. Virginia and its Application in Capital Cases (September 15, 2009). Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-021; Tennessee Law Review, Vol. 76, 2009. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1473806

John H. Blume III

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

Sheri Lynn Johnson

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-6478 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

Christopher Seeds (Contact Author)

New York University (NYU) ( email )

Department of Sociology
292 Lafayette Street, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10012
United States

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