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Capital punishment, Death penalty, Intellectually disabled defendants, Wrongful conviction, Eighth Amendment


Constitutional Law | Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure


In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that executing individuals with intellectual disability violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. In addition to concerns over culpability and deterrence, the Court’s judgment in Atkins was informed by the heightened “risk of wrongful execution” faced by persons with intellectual disability. This essay explores that question both anecdotally and quantitatively, hoping to illuminate the causes of wrongful conviction of persons with intellectual disability. We provide examples from our experiences in the Cornell Death Penalty Clinic and cases brought to our attention by defense attorneys. We also present data from the National Registry of Exonerations. Then we turn to the causes of the disproportionate wrongful conviction of intellectually disabled persons and conclude by considering implications of those causes for reform.