Good Argumentative Essay On Atkins Vs. Virginia: The Death Of Capital Punishment?

Type of paper: Argumentative Essay

Topic: Criminal Justice, Crime, Court, Supreme Court, Law, Punishment, Death, Torture

Pages: 7

Words: 1925

Published: 2021/03/18

Intro or Rationale

In Atkins v Virginia, the United States Supreme Court ruled that hanging offenders who are mentally retarded was in violation of the Constitution, specifically the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” In formulating the decision, the Court “discovered” a growing concurrence opposed to executing mentally retarded offenders; however, the Court fell short of defining those that can be qualified as mentally retarded individuals. This endeavor the Court left to the discretion of the states. A critical point is that in the estimation of a number of commentators, many of those on “Death Row” have been defrauded by a system that is crippled and what is worse, may have never actually functioned correctly; this disturbing fact can possibly translate to innocent offenders being sent to their deaths (Singh, 2008, p. 639).


The case of Penry v Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989) saw the United States Supreme Court deal with the concern whether it was “cruel and unusual” to out to death persons with mental retardation. The suspect, John Paul Penry, was convicted for the rape and murder of Pamela Mosely Carpenter. Penry was determined to be “mentally competent” to be tried in court even though expert testimony given in court stated that Penry had the mental capacity of a six and half year old child. In the course of the “guilt phase” of the proceedings, the jury in Texas discarded the “insanity defense” put forth by Penry’s defense and ultimately sentenced Penry to receive the death penalty. Penry moved for the courts to grant a habeas corpus motion asserting that the court’s sentencing him to death was in violation of the Eighth Amendment owing to the fact that hanging an individual with mental retardation constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The High Court held, in a 5-4 decision, that the Eighth did not specifically ban the execution of persons with mental instabilities. In writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor bans sanctions that go against “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Furthermore, noting that only two jurisdictions specifically ban the execution of convicted criminals with mental retardation, O’Connor concluded that a national concurrence assailing the execution of individuals with mental retardation has not been established (Scott, Gerbasi, 2003, p. 101).

Literature Review

Prior to Atkins, the mechanism that was sought to be used was attempting to define the original intentions of the Framers regarding the Eighth. Often times, the body of English Common Law were the genesis of the analysis of the Court for the Framer’s inclusion of the Eighth and the context of the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” In common law, there was a ban on executing “idiots” and “lunatics;” “lunatics” were traditionally assigned to those who were considered mentally ill, while the term “idiots” were given to the mentally retarded. Persons who fell into these classifications were commonly spared from being executed as these were not “chargeable for their own acts.” In addition, the rationale for not executing an insane individual is that the action will not serve any deterrent action and thus will serve no value to the imposition of capital punishment (Kaufman, 2001, pp. 582-583).
The implementation of capital punishment is a central target for initiatives to integrate international jurisprudence into the way that the United States should understand the tenets of its own Constitution. The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment;” however, the United States Supreme Court has not definitively stated what comprises the phrase; at the same time, the High Court has mandated that the phrase must be understood in the concept of the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
Wryly, history points to the fact that the Framers crafted the Eighth Amendment in a bid to restrain Congress from adopting laws that can be considered as “inhumane” that were being used in Europe during that time. Today, many Europeans are against the implementation of the death penalty in the United States and are looking for ways to have international laws displace US law in this regard (University of Virginia Law School, 2015, p. 1).
Though the states can adopt laws to adopt the death penalty, the US High Court restricted the capacity of the states to execute children and juveniles as well as those with mental instabilities owing to the weakened ability of the defendants to reasonably justify their actions. Recent events have proffered contentions to the policy of hanging the mentally retarded in court. One of the issues came in McCarver v. North Carolina, 533 U.S. 975 (2001); however, with the signing of the law barring executions of mentally retarded individuals, the decision has been considered as moot.
As a result, the High Court discharged McCarver; withal, on the 25th of September 2001, the High Court granted judicial relief to Daryl Renard Atkins, an inmate in Virginia. The Court granted a stay to Atkin’s execution to resolve the question whether Atkin’s execution violated the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause in the Eighth (Kaufman, 2001, pp. 579-580).

In favor: Atkins v Virginia

The US Supreme Court, ruling 6-3, overturned the decision of Virginia’s Supreme Court and ruled that the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” embodied in the Eighth was not violated should mentally retarded individuals be executed. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, cited the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” as used as a defense against claims of inordinate punishment. Aside from Trop vs. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958), Stevens asserted the manner that the Court should determine the values of society, where the barometer should be the laws that are being adopted by the nation’s legislatures (Scott, Gerbasi, 2003, p. 102). The Court believed that there was an urgent concern whether the factors that are being used to justify the use of capital punishment-redress and obviation of capital crimes-can apply to offenders who are mentally retarded owing to their debilitated culpability (IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, 2015, p. 1).
During the time that the Court ruled in Penry, Maryland and Georgia were the only jurisdictions had adopted laws prohibiting the hanging of people with mental instabilities. However, in the aftermath of Penry, 16 state jurisdictions as well as the Federal government had adopted laws that banned executing mentally retarded individuals. To Stevens, the number of the states that were adopting a position opposed to imposing the death penalty on mentally retarded individuals, but the “consistency of the direction of the change in the attitudes regarding the issue that is significant.
Furthermore, the High Bench noted that the jurisdictions that do allow capital punishment sentences who are mentally retarded do not execute individuals with mental instabilities that often. The Court acknowledged that one possible area of conflict in hanging individuals with mental retardation is the procedure that mental retardation is established; the Court also noted that “not all people who claim to be mentally retarded will be so impaired as to fall within the range of mentally retarded offenders about whom there is a national consensus (Scott, Gerbasi, 2003, p. 102).
In Atkins, the understanding of the High Court of the “evolving standards of decency” was not static; rather, the understanding of the Court with regards to the engagement of the factors of implementing the death penalty and mentally retarded suspects has in fact progressed, albeit in spurts and by case. Professor James Ellis, who spoke for Atkins in the Supreme Court, noted that it was Atkins where the change reached its peak (Singh, 2008, pp. 639-640).

Opposing arguments

The “evolving standards of decency” provision in the Eighth can be regarded as labeling the case as a militant issue as the clause is being abused by judges and justices to acquiesce with the self-styled “Living Constitution” to force the US Constitution to comply with their respective sensibilities rather than try cases on the merits. It must be noted that the “evolving standards” standard is not a standard in any way or form; worse, the provision gives judges with unbridled discretion. In addition, the Court contended that there is a national concurrence that is opposed to executing those that are mentally retarded.
The Court defends the claim by examining survey data and the attitudes of professional and religious groups, and assessing the “direction of change” that was being adopted in state and Federal legislature. It must be noted that survey information and attitudes of religious and other groups are helpful in formulating policies; nevertheless, these cannot be sufficient in assessing and determining whether a punishment can b regarded as “cruel and unusual.” With regards to the “change in direction” being adopted by legislatures, the High Bench depended on the factor that 18 jurisdictions adopted laws that prohibited the execution of the mentally retarded. However, as noted by Justice Antonin Scalia, the 18 states comprise only 47 percent of the 38 jurisdictions that allow the death penalty. The evidence proffered by the Supreme Court can hardly be called a national concurrence that can call legislatures to adopt limits on using a specific form of sanction.
In addition, the Court further displayed an increased misconception of its role by referencing international jurisprudence when assessing what should comprise “evolving standards of decency.” Instead of using the historical anchors of the Eighth as framed by the original developers of the Constitution, US Supreme Court justices are increasingly using and basing decisions on international law. Withal, the Supreme Court placed a supreme belief in its own judgment in interpreting the law.
When the Eighth was framed, the “cruel and unusual punishment” usually was understood as punishment that can be understood today as “torture”-beheading, stoning that were rarely in colonial America. The rulings of the Court in cases engaging the Eighth have twisted and strained the essence of the Eighth to translate as anything that offends the sensibilities of the judge or the justices (The Heritage Foundation, 2015, p. 1).
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, wrote a stinging dissent against the majority decision. In his opposition to the decision, Rehnquist castigated the Court for it’s over reliance on foreign jurisprudence, the attitudes of religious groups, and survey polls to formulate its decisions. Rehnquist argued that the majority had decided well over its own long held principles in determining societal values which Rehnquist held that the indicators of “societal values” was the laws being adopted by Congress and state legislatures and the rulings given out by juries meting out sanctions in cases. Justice Rehnquist wrote that as the majority did not use the appropriate evidence, the majority failed to prove that there is a national concurrence against executing people with mental retardation (Scott, Gerbasi, 2003, pp. 102-103).


The main point of contention here is not whether there is a possibility of a mentally retarded person being actually executed; rather it is the determination whether there are mechanisms that can determine who is actually mentally retarded. In addition, there is a need to determine why the justices and judges continue to seek legal guidance from foreign resources rather than from the historical tenets of the US Constitution and the decisions that have come prior to Atkins.
What can be seen here is that the justices and judges seem to have a belief that the Constitution and the decisions prior to Atkins are deficient with regards to giving appropriate guidance for capital punishment cases involving mentally retarded individuals. Furthermore, in the paper, there seems to be a gap in the determination of who actually can be called mentally retarded. This is with regards to the scale acceptable to the courts, and why courts at times reject the introduction or consideration of these factors even if these will have a critical impact on cases involving these persons.
What are needed are policies and processes that are institutionalized and can be used in facilitating cases involving mentally retarded persons sentenced in capital crime cases. However, this is not to say that any person claiming insanity should be absolved of being sentenced to death. This is the main reason why there is a need to establish guidelines and policies to justify the sentence of those that will be sentenced to death.

Annotated bibliography

Heritage Foundation (2015) “Atkins v Virginia” Retrieved 22 April 2015 from <
The imposition of the capital punishment, according to the work, is slowly being determined not by the tenets of the law, but by the personal opinions and attitudes of the judge and the sentiment of the public. Regrettably, the “evolving standards of decency” barometer is devoid of any standard-setting suasion, and exacerbates the position of giving justices and judges unrestrained discretionary powers.
IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law (2015) “Atkins v. Virginia” Retrieved 22 April 2015 from <
The article mainly deals with the facts of the case and the ruling of the Court. The questions are posed whether the execution of individuals with mental retardation can be considered as the imposition of “cruel and unusual” punishment under the Eighth.
Kaufmann, O. (2001). Atkins v. Virginia: is executing the mentally retarded constitutional? Marquette Law Review Volume 85 Issue 2 pp. 579-592
The work discusses the adoption of the various US jurisdictions of the death penalty; however, the work also notes the limitations that have been rendered by the US Supreme Court on implementing the death penalty on individuals such as juveniles and the mentally ill. It is unclear however whether the Court granted the motion of Atkins to evaluate the societal concurrence regarding the matter or whether the Court or the resolution of case law will be conclusive.
Scott, C.L., Gerbasi, J.D (2003). Atkins v. Virginia: execution of mentally retarded defendants revisited. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Volume 31 pp. 101-104
The Eighth Amendment categorically bans the imposition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” In defining “cruel and unusual punishment,” it can be taken to mean retribution that is disproportionate or inordinate to the crime. In addition, the term “cruel and unusual punishment” acquiesces to the factor of the level of culpability of the offender in the case. In the aforementioned case, the offender is supposedly mentally retarded, hence the challenge anchored on the Eighth.
Singh, S. H (2008). Atkins vs. Virginia: looking back and looking forward. DePaul Law Review Volume 57 Issue 3
Here, the increasing incursion of international law into the comprehension of US constitutional law, specifically the death penalty. The primary arbiter of the law, the Supreme Court, has absconded on its role in firmly establishing the meaning of the phrase. In addition, the Court has tended to resolve issues on capital punishment on the “evolving standards of decency” clause rather than on the historical moorings of the amendment.

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