Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2009


Atkins v. Virginia, Death penalty, Capital punishment, Intellectual disability


Criminal Law


In Atkins vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court declared that evolving standards of decency and the Eighth Amendment prohibit the death penalty for individuals with intellectual disability (formerly, "mental retardation"). Both supporters and opponents of the categorical exemption, however, have criticized the Atkins opinion. The Atkins dissent, for example, urged that the decision would open the gates of litigation to a flood of frivolous claims. Another prominent criticism, heard from those more supportive of the Court's ruling, has been that the language the Court used communicating that states must "generally conform" to the clinical definitions of mental retardation is ambiguous enough to permit states to stray from the clinical definitions and, consequently, for death eligibility to vary depending upon the jurisdiction in which a defendant is charged. This Article presents preliminary data responsive to these issues, and reports three basic findings. First, Atkins has not opened floodgates of non-meritorious litigation. Second, the success rates for Atkins claims vary dramatically between states and state deviations from the clinical definitions appear to have a palpable impact. Third, as compared to their representation on death row, African-American defendants both file and win a disproportionately high number of Atkins claims.

Publication Citation

Tennessee Law Review, vol. 76, no. 3 (Spring 2009)

Included in

Criminal Law Commons