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Accountable, Yet Not Accountable
[June 21, 2002]

By Nicholas Provenzo

Yesterday the Supreme court released its decision in Atkins v. Virginia, regarding the propriety of executing the mentally retarded. The court reversed the death sentence of a retarded murderer, arguing that his diminished mental precluded him from acting with the level of moral culpability that characterizes criminal conduct. In a seemingly bizarre conclusion, the court ruled that the retarded were competent enough to be punished for their crimes with the exception of execution, which they argued triggers the 8th amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishments.

A key potion of the court's decision reads as follows:

"...clinical definitions of mental retardation require not only subaverage intellectual functioning, but also significant limitations in adaptive skills such as communication, self-care, and self-direction that became manifest before age 18. Mentally retarded persons frequently know the difference between right and wrong and are competent to stand trial. Because of their impairments, however, by definition they 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 the reactions of others. There is no evidence that they are more likely to engage in criminal conduct than others, but there is abundant evidence that they often act on impulse rather than pursuant to a premeditated plan, and that in group settings they are followers rather than leaders. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but they do diminish their personal culpability."

I wonder what the scientific basis is for judging a person mentally deficient enough to limit their criminal culpability, but not to remove it altogether? Frankly, I think there is none. In the case reviewed by the court, the individual in question had shot a man under the most vicious circumstances. As noted in Justice Scalia's scathing dissent:

"After spending the day drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, petitioner Daryl Renard Atkins and a partner in crime drove to a convenience store, intending to rob a customer. Their victim was Eric Nesbitt, an airman from Langley Air Force Base, whom they abducted, drove to a nearby automated teller machine, and forced to withdraw $200. They then drove him to a deserted area, ignoring his pleas to leave him unharmed. According to the co-conspirator, whose testimony the jury evidently credited, Atkins ordered Nesbitt out of the vehicle and, after he had taken only a few steps, shot him one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times in the thorax, chest, abdomen, arms, and legs."

I'm inclined to think that Atkins' deeds per se show that he was capable of understanding and controlling his actions. He was of sufficient mental capacity to obtain a gun, conspire with another man to commit robbery, travel to the place of his crime, commit robbery, kidnap an individual, and then brutally murder him. These are not the deeds of a mental cripple. They are the deeds of an individual who deserves to be punished with the full weight of the law.


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