Even though the state of Virginia admits that the question of Daryl Atkins’ mental retardation is a “close case,” it is still pursuing a lengthy jury trial to ensure his execution. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002 that those with mental retardation must be excluded from the death penalty, but they issued no opinion with regard to Mr. Atkins’ mental status. As the trial in Virginia began this week, Atkins’ mother and former teachers testified about his long-term struggles in dealing with his disability, noting that he did not finish high school, could not get a driver’s license, and was cut from the football team because he could not grasp the rules.

Atkins scored 59 on an IQ test in 1998, but recorded scores of 67 and 74 on more recent tests. Psychologist Evan Nelson, who administered the tests, believes that one explanation for the higher scores may be how many times Atkins has taken the exam, how long the test has been around, and the eight years Atkins has spent in jail. Nelson stated, “Oddly enough, because of his constant contact with the many lawyers that worked on his case… Mr. Atkins received more intellectual stimulation in prison that he did during his late adolescence and early adulthood.”

The trial is expected to include testimony from nearly 100 witnesses, including teachers, relatives, acquaintances, and crime victims. Possibly interfering with a simple objective determination of Atkins’ mental ability, the jury has been informed that this was a death penalty case. Knowledge of the crime could influence their willingness to grant him a lesser punishment through a finding of mental retardation. A verdict is expected in August. (DPIC analysis, New York Times, July 27, 2005, and Washington Post, July 23, 2005). See Mental Retardation.
Update: On August 5, Daryl Atkins was found to be not mentally retarded by a jury in Yorktown, Virginia. The state set an execution date of December 2, though his attorneys vowed to appeal the ruling. (Wash. Post, Aug. 6, 2005).