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In Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court voted six to three to bar further use of the death penalty for mentally retarded offenders. The Court offered three reasons for banning the execution of the retarded. First, citing a shift in public opinion over the thirteen years since Penry v. Lynaugh, the Court in Atkins ruled that the execution of the mentally retarded is "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Second, the Court concluded that retaining the death penalty for the mentally retarded would not serve the interest in retribution or deterrence that is essential to capital jurisprudence. Atkins held that mentally retarded people lacked a range of developmental capacities necessary to establish the higher threshold of culpability for the execution of murderers that the Court had established in Furman, Gregg, Coker, Woodson, and Enmund. Third, the Atkins Court noted that the impairments of mental retardation lead to a "special risk of wrongful execution."

The Atkins decision, though welcomed by both popular and legal policy audiences, naturally raises the question: what about juveniles? After all, the very same limitations in developmental capacities that characterize mentally retarded defendants also characterize a significant proportion of adolescent offenders. The parallels between capital punishment for adolescents and for the mentally retarded have been echoed both in popular and legal discourse since the resumption of capital punishment following Furman. Prior to Atkins, many groups protested the use of capital punishment for both types of offenders, invoking arguments against capital punishment that applied equally to each. The popular coupling of concerns about adolescents with concerns about the mentally retarded seemed to naturally invite an extension of the Atkins Court's reasoning to juveniles by highlighting the diminished capacity for culpability common to offenders of both groups. In fact, on August 30, 2002, in a rare dissent from an order declining to stay an execution, Justices Stevens, Breyer, and Ginsburg urged the Court to reconsider the constitutionality of allowing juveniles to be sentenced to death. In reference to the Atkins decision, the Justices argued that reexamining the "juvenile" issue was warranted, thereby underscoring yet again the similarities between both cases.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Criminology and Criminal Justice | Law