State to Determine Murderer's Mental Ability

Robert Siegel talks with Washington Post reporter Donna St. George about the Virginia trial to decide if convicted murderer Daryl Atkins is mentally retarded as jury selection begins. The decision will affect whether or not Atkins' death sentence is upheld. His case was the signature in the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling banning the execution of the mentally retarded.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

What does it mean to be mentally retarded, and what degree of retardation is covered by the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling against the execution of the mentally retarded? Well, those questions will now be thrashed out in a Yorktown, Virginia, courtroom where a jury that's being selected starting today will reconsider the sentence of 27-year-old death row inmate Daryl Atkins. Atkins was convicted of a 1996 murder and robbery. In 1998, he scored 59 on an IQ test, but more recently, he has scored in the 70s. And the disparity between those results may mark the difference between the death penalty and life in prison. Reporter Donna St. George of The Washington Post is covering this case, and she joins us right now.

Donna St. George, can you tell us, first, how does the prosecution square the death penalty, the Supreme Court's ban on executing the mentally retarded and Daryl Atkins' very low IQ?

Ms. DONNA ST. GEORGE (The Washington Post): Well, the prosecutors feel that that first IQ score is a tainted IQ score, and they believe his score is much higher than that 59. Their expert came up with the number 76, and they believe that his score and his history shows that he does not fit the definition of mentally retarded.

SIEGEL: Well, how does the defense explain away the higher scores that Atkins achieved some years after that first test score of 59?

Ms. ST. GEORGE: The defense says that Daryl Atkins' IQ score, that it's risen in a more understandable way, because he's been in the structured environment of prison, and he's been exposed to lawyers and talking with lawyers all the time. Their expert has said that he has had more mental stimulation in prison than he did in his adolescence and early adult life, and that this has kind of bumped up his score over time.

SIEGEL: Now you published a long story about this case over the weekend in The Washington Post. And apart from these numbers of the IQ test results, what are some of the indices you hear of how retarded or slow or just not too bright Daryl Atkins might be?

Ms. ST. GEORGE: Well, another test is his adaptive functioning, and that looks at conceptual and social and practical kind of daily living skills. There are some indications that growing up in school that Daryl Atkins flunked second grade and just barely made it through fourth grade and couldn't compete on the high school football team partly because he couldn't learn plays or distinguish his right from his left. There are some childhood history descriptions that portray someone with potential problems, I guess, on the adaptive functioning side, but I think that will be an issue of dispute at the trial.

SIEGEL: Is the issue in the trial whether Daryl Atkins is mentally retarded today and therefore should not be executed, or that he was--whatever he might be today, that at the time of the crime in 1996, he was mentally retarded?

Ms. ST. GEORGE: Under Virginia law, you need to show mental retardation, the onset of it, before the age of 18. And so they will have to show that before the age of 18, Daryl Atkins was mentally retarded.

SIEGEL: When the Supreme Court ruled, one of the cases at hand was Daryl Atkins, wasn't it? That was one of the cases they were reviewing.

Ms. ST. GEORGE: Yes. In fact, Daryl Atkins, this is the signature case. This is the case upon which the Supreme Court prohibited executing the mentally retarded.

SIEGEL: Well, since his case was, as you say, the signature case, it somehow stands to reason that that should have been the end of the death penalty for him, but somehow it wasn't. It wasn't clear to the Supreme Court that he, indeed, was mentally retarded?

Ms. ST. GEORGE: Well, the Supreme Court banned the practice, but they let the states decide exactly what constituted mental retardation, and so states had to create their own laws, and they sent this case back to the state of Virginia to be sorted out. They wanted Virginia, itself, to decide whether Daryl Atkins met the threshold of what mental retardation is.

SIEGEL: Well, Donna St. George, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. ST. GEORGE: Thank you so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Donna St. George of The Washington Post, talking about the case of Daryl Atkins.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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