In 2002, for the first time, in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), the United States Supreme Court found that it violated the Eighth Amendment to subject persons with intellectual disabilities to the death penalty. Since that time, it has returned to this question multiple times, clarifying that inquiries into a defendant’s intellectual disability (for purposes of determining whether he is potentially subject to the death penalty) cannot be limited to a bare numerical “reading” of an IQ score, and that state rules based on superseded medical standards created an unacceptable risk that a person with intellectual disabilities could be executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Atkins provides a blueprint, but the question remains as to whether it will, in the long run, be more than a “paper victory.” Until these issues are carefully considered, the true legacy of Atkins and its progeny will not be at all clear, and it will similarly not be clear if the case’s revolutionary potential will be fulfilled. In this paper, we seek to answer this question: to what extent has the Fifth Circuit given meaningful life to Atkins and its progeny? Our research reveals that, in the universe of 70 “Atkins cases” (that is, cases in the Fifth Circuit in which colorable Atkins-based arguments had been raised by defendants on habeas corpus applications), in only nine cases (12%) was any actual and meaningful relief granted to defendants (their sentences being commuted to life in prison, with one of those defendants having a parole hearing scheduled). In 40 of the 70 cases (57%), the Circuit affirmed a decision below, in most cases, denying applications for writs of habeas corpus. Eight cases (11%) are still pending, that is, there was a remand from the Fifth Circuit or a grant of a certificate of appealability, and further proceedings are currently taking place or being scheduled. In 13 cases (18.5%), although preliminary relief had been granted, defendants were ultimately unsuccessful; as of the writing of this paper, ten have been executed, one defendant’s execution has been stayed because of Covid-related reasons, one died in prison and one remains on death row. In short, if every one of the defendants in pending cases is successful (an outcome that, based on the Fifth Circuit’s global track record, is certainly not likely), that will mean that Atkins’ claims were successful in just 24% of all cases.
Our findings also revealed important patterns of why certain defendants were successful, and the majority were unsuccessful. It was more likely that at least preliminary relief was granted in those cases in which defendants were able to rebut allegations that they were “malingering,” in which effort to raise the so-called “Flynn effect” were prevalent, and in which the WAIS IQ test was relied upon; if all three were present, that seemed to heighten the likelihood of success. On the other hand, the findings also revealed that it was less likely that a defendant would be successful if the WISC IQ test were used, if there was no rebuttal for malingering claims or if the subsequently-discredited testimony of one forensic psychologist was used by the state.
Our roadmap is this: First, we discuss the Atkins case and the significance of how post-Atkins cases modified and reinforced some of Atkins’ most salient points. Following this, we will examine the universe of Fifth Circuit cases applying (often, misapplying) Atkins, explaining our methodology and revealing our findings.
We then consider this entire area of law and policy through the lens and filter of therapeutic jurisprudence, and then subsequently apply that doctrine’s principles to the database of the cases in question. We conclude by offering some modest suggestions focusing on how we can finally, some 17 years after one of us used this phrase in a title of another law review article about Atkins, “giv[e] life” to this case.
Perlin, Michael L.; Harmon, Talia Roitberg; and Wetzel, Sarah, ""Man Is Opposed to Fair Play": An Empirical Analysis of How the Fifth Circuit Has Failed to Take Seriously Atkins v. Virginia" (2021). Articles & Chapters. 1451.