Why does Intellectual Disability Prohibit Execution?


Atkins v. Virginia


In 1996, 18-year-old Darly Renard Atkins was tried and found guilty of kidnapping, armed robbery, and murder. Atkins was sentenced to death. The Virginia Supreme Court later ordered a second sentencing hearing due to the trial court’s use of a verdict form which was found to be misleading. A forensic psychologist declared that the defendant had an IQ of 59 and was mildly mentally retarded as evidenced by his vocabulary, intellectual level, and behavior. Atkins was again sentenced to death.


In 2002, the United States Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on people with intellectual disabilities. It was found to be cruel and unusual to execute such individuals in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In addition to considering the momentum behind states declining to execute those with an intellectual disability, the Court also noted the two major justifications for the death penalty (retribution and deterrence) may not truly apply to those who are intellectually disabled. Such individuals are considered less culpable than the general population given their intellectual deficits which frequently result in impairments in rational thinking, understanding of cause and effect, abstract reasoning, social reasoning, planning and organization, and other areas of cognitive ability. Justice Stephens wrote, “Mentally retarded persons … have 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 others’ reactions. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability.” Given this reduced culpability, subjecting such individuals to an equally severe level of retribution in the death penalty was judged to be an injustice. Further, an individual with such intellectual deficits is unlikely to have the ability to carefully weigh the potential risks of committing a capital crime, resulting in a diminished deterrence toward committing crimes. In essence, without either typical justification suitably supported for individuals with an intellectual disability, such a sentence is cruel and unusual.


An additional concern expressed by the Supreme Court of the United States in Atkins v Virginia is the increased likelihood of wrongful conviction of individuals with an intellectual disability. The court observed that such individuals are far more likely to make false confessions. This is in part due to the deficits mentioned above in addition to acquiescence, deference to authority, emotional immaturity, and susceptibility to suggestion amongst other factors. Such individuals, even when mentally fit to proceed to trial, are less likely to provide effective assistance to their defense attorneys and are less likely to be effective at testifying on their own behalf or at identifying useful evidence which might exonerate them. Further, individuals who are intellectually disabled may display social and emotional deficits which may be interpreted by jurors as a lack of remorse for their actions (while in reality it may be a lack of appreciation for the true nature of their circumstances and the victim’s amongst other reasons). This misattribution has led some jurors to seek the death penalty as has their misperception of an intellectually disabled person as being more dangerous. O’Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer joined Stephens in his opinion.


The Importance of Competent Evaluators


It is important that the forensic psychologists who conduct evaluations for death penalty cases are well-trained and appropriately educated. As an illustration of the dangers of substandard and unethical work by a forensic psychologist, we may consider the first Atkins case to be tried in South Carolina. In 1995, Johnny Ringo Pearson was charged with rape and murder in South Carolina. Pearson had evidence of intellectual disability such as multiple intelligence tests showing an IQ below 70, special education, an inability to sustain employment, referral to a camp for those who are intellectually disabled by his school, and inability to pass the fifth grade. An expert opined that intelligence tests were inaccurate for poor, rural, black individuals in South Carolina and therefore an additional 10-15 points should be added to the intelligence score of 68. Despite this testimony, Pearson was ultimately ruled intellectually disabled by the judge and ineligible for execution. Although this case had a fair outcome, many others do not and it is important that psychologists, attorneys, the courts, and the general public ensure that competent and quality work is done to protect the rights of all individuals involved.


Authored by


Burçak Öktem Benjamin Silber

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