Atkins Death Sentence Would Violate Spirit and Intent of Supreme Court Decision

On July 26th, Angela Ciccolo, NAACP Interim General Counsel, called on Virginia to spare the life of Daryl Atkins, a mentally retarded man convicted of murder, because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing the mentally retarded is "cruel and unusual punishment."

"It is important to uphold the spirit and the intent of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision and to join the rest of the civilized nations of the world in prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded defendants," said Ciccolo. "Atkins has an IQ of 59," she said. "He clearly doesn't belong on Virginia's death row. At the very least, the Commonwealth should consider incarceration rather than the death penalty given his diminished mental capacity."

The national NAACP joins with the Hampton Branch NAACP in asking York County Commonwealth Attorney Eileen Addison to not pursue the death sentence. "If the Supreme Court decided that executing the mentally retarded was cruel and unusual punishment based on Atkin's IQ, why is it necessary for the prosecutor to push for death?" Hampton NAACP President Carmen Taylor asked.

The NAACP has long opposed the death penalty because in many states there has been a disproportionate number of African Americans sentenced to death, particularly when the crime involves a white victim.

The 27-year-old Atkins received a death sentence for the 1996 killing of 21-year-old Eric Nesbitt. An appeal of his conviction led the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 to rule against the execution of the mentally retarded. In the wake of the Court ruling, death sentences of many mentally retarded offenders across the nation have been commuted to life in prison. Atkins now seeks life imprisonment based on his mental retardation. A trial on that question began Monday in Yorktown, Virginia.

Atkins was convicted of capital murder after he and William Jones allegedly abducted Nesbitt and forced him to withdraw money from an ATM. Jones was allowed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Atkins pled not guilty.

Although the Supreme Court decided in the Atkins case that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of the death penalty, the decision did not eliminate his death sentence. The high Court sent the case back to Virginia state courts to determine his mental status. Atkins' lawyers asked eight mental health professionals to examine him and all concluded he is mentally retarded. The
prosecution had three mental health professionals examine Atkins. They concluded that his IQ shows significant limitations in intellectual functioning, but does not denote mental retardation.

Taylor said she is concerned that having the sentencing trial in Yorktown will mean the jury might not contain many African Americans. Nesbitt was white, and Taylor said that historically African Americans accused of murdering whites are given harsher sentences.

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