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August 18, 2005

Significant New Jersey ruling on implementing Atkins

With great thanks to Howard for this tip, I see that a New Jersey appellate court has issued a very significant ruling concerning the procedures for assessing a capital defendant's claim of mental retardation.  As discussed in helpful detail in this AP report, in New Jersey v. Jimenez, No. A-3737-04T2 (NJ App. Aug. 17, 2005) (available here), the court held that prosecutors seeking the death penalty must prove a defendant is not mentally retarded beyond a resonable doubt. 

The Jimenez ruling runs (including a concurrence) a total of 67 thoughtful pages, includes an extended section on "The Effect of Apprendi, Ring, Blakely, and Booker," and ultimately rests its holding on state constitutional law grounds.  Here is a key passage from the main opinion:

Although a lack of retardation would not constitute a threshold consideration in every case (or indeed, in most cases), when a defendant's mental status has been placed in issue, as here, we find a clear right on the part of a defendant to insist that a jury determine whether he is mentally retarded and thus whether that threshold to the imposition of a death sentence can be met, or whether he is barred from execution.

In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970), together with Ring, requires as a matter of due process, that the absence of retardation be established by the State beyond a reasonable doubt.

The thrust of the holding in Jimenez is also well summarized at the end of Judge Fisher's concurring opinion:

As a result of the uniqueness and irrevocability of the death penalty, those facts that permit the State to take the life of the accused may be resolved only by a process that requires the State to prove to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused is not mentally retarded.

Additional local press coverage of this important ruling can be accessed here and here.  One of these articles quotes the leading expert in this field, Professor Jim Ellis, as stating that of the "more than two dozen states that now have a law or court ruling dictating procedures for Atkins cases, New Mexico is the only other one that requires the prosecution to disprove mental retardation."

August 18, 2005 at 08:27 AM | Permalink


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The opinion appears to rest on federal not state grounds. One of the reason capital jurisprudence is so mind numbingly bad is that you have to look at the state statute and SCOTUS precedent together to determine any given opinion's holding. The NJ statute requires the jury to determine all issues in a capital case thereby triggering federal constitutional jury guarantees.

- k

PS This is my opinion & not anyone I work for's opinion.

Posted by: karl | Aug 18, 2005 10:22:52 AM

Karl, check out footnote 18, which I read as saying this was a state constitutional holding. But I have only been able to give this a quick read, so perhaps you are right.

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 18, 2005 12:07:06 PM

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