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September 9, 2012

"Execution by Accident: Evidentiary and Constitutional Problems with the 'Childhood Onset' Requirement in Atkins Claims"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now up on SSRN authored by Steven Mulroy, which takes on one especially problematic aspect of how lower courts have implemented the Supreme Court's (now decade old) Atkins ruling.  Here is the abstract:

The article discusses claims by capital defendants asserting that they are mentally retarded (MR) and thus cannot be executed under the 2002 Supreme Court holding in Atkins v. Virginia.  Courts hearing such claims require proof that any intellectual deficits first occurred during childhood.  This “childhood onset” prong is problematic for practical and theoretical reasons.  As a practical matter, courts often improperly: (a) expect (rarely available) IQ test results dating from childhood; (b) dismiss MR proof if the defendant has minimal day-to-day competence, despite the medical consensus that MR persons can drive, cook, etc.; and (c) reject Atkins claims because the defendant also suffers from mental illness, incorrectly supposing that such illness can be singled out as the sole cause of intellectual deficits.  The article suggests several rules regarding burden-shifting and admissibility to address these problems.

More fundamentally, the requirement itself is irrational and arguably constitutional.  It means that a capital defendant with brain injury at age 17 will be treated differently from an identically challenged person injured at 19.  In Atkins, the Supreme Court gave two reasons why MR and execution don’t mix: MR (i) reduces culpability and deterrability, and (ii) interferes with a defendant’s ability to get a fair trial.  The onset requirement has no relevance to any of these reasons; it was adopted “accidentally” by states which simply copied without analysis a medical definition designed for distinct clinical purposes and which is referenced but not required by Atkins itself.  The requirement arguably leads to “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment, especially in light of the very recent Supreme Court cases involving juvenile defendants.  Under Equal Protection challenge, it may merit heightened constitutional scrutiny since it burdens the fundamental right to life.  Even under the more permissive “rational basis” standard, the onset requirement is constitutionally vulnerable.

September 9, 2012 at 12:02 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Atkins was running a drug business, and living the Roman Orgy lifestyle at age 9. What were the Justices accomplishing at that age?

By hanging out with lawyers, his English improved to a point where is now death penalty qualified.

I have proposed a new remediation program for people with MR. Send them to lawyers' offices instead of to special ed classed. The firm can be paid the $40,000 a year now totally wasted on worthless special education programs, and rent seeking teachers' union members.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 9, 2012 12:40:19 PM

"It means that a capital defendant with brain injury at age 17 will be treated differently from an identically challenged person injured at 19."

I think this is a fair point but TBI technically is not MR. It can lead to MR but it is not so.

"(a) expect (rarely available) IQ test results dating from childhood..."

This isn't true and to the extent it is true it represents an educational problem and not a legal one. Anyone who is MR in childhood who does not have an IEP, the teacher and the principal of that school should be taken out and shot, okay.

I dislike Atkins for many reasons but IQ tests in childhood is a rather silly basis to dislike it.

B, and C are legitimate complaints but that has nothing to do with Atkins itself and everything to do with the judges.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 9, 2012 3:57:21 PM

"More fundamentally, the requirement itself is irrational and arguably constitutional. It means that a capital defendant with brain injury at age 17 will be treated differently from an identically challenged person injured at 19."

Isn't this Nita Farahany's paper all over again?

Posted by: Steve Erickson | Sep 9, 2012 5:30:53 PM

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