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May 12, 2008

How many have sought off death row using Atkins?

Thanks to How Appealing I saw this intriguing article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer headlined, "Six felons ruled retarded are spared execution."  Here are snippets:

Six men are likely to die in prison, but not at the hands of an executioner.  They were removed from Ohio's death row because they are mentally retarded and judges ruled they qualified under a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute retarded inmates....

Five other men on death row say they are mentally retarded, including James Were, 51, who was sentenced to death for killing guard Robert Vallandingham in the 1993 Lucasville prison riot.  The Ohio Supreme Court heard Were's arguments in February....

It is not known how many death row inmates nationwide have filed claims....

The DPIC's page on mental retardation does not have any statistics concerning the number of inmate bringing or succeeding with Atkins claims.  I would guess that hundreds of defendants have brought claims based on Atkins, but I would also guess that only some of those claimants have made it off the row.  I wonder if anyone is trying to track these matters: it would make a very interesting case-study in the practical implementation of a notable constitutional holding concerning the administration of capital punishment.

May 12, 2008 at 11:33 AM | Permalink


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This source states that 31 mentally retarded persons were executed between 1976 and 1997 out of 432 executions (i.e. 7.1% of all executions), a percentage equal to roughly half of those on death row in 1997 with an 8th grade education or less.

The data for the most recent years available from the DOJ show similar education levels and suggest that something on the order of 230 death row inmates might be mentally retarded (somewhat less if one is skeptical of the 31 mentally retarded persons executed since 1977 claim, although I am not among them). Allowing for marginal cases being pursued, one would imagine that there would be something on the order of 400-600 post-conviction Atkins claims raised since the opinion was issued. Notably, the removal from death row rate in this year was about 50% higher for the least educated prisons than the average.

Posted by: ohwilleke | May 12, 2008 5:02:10 PM

Doug: I seem remember from my days in Washington that North Carolina had taken something like 14 inmates off its death row as a result of a warm legislative embrace of Atkins standards. Can't recall the details (and that number may be wrong), but I remember talking with anti-death penalty advocates there who were pretty enthused about it...

Posted by: Steve Henderson | May 13, 2008 12:57:57 PM

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