Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002)

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certiorari to the supreme court of virginia

No. 00-8452. Argued February 20, 2002—Decided June 20, 2002

Petitioner Atkins was convicted of capital murder and related crimes by a

Virginia jury and sentenced to death. Affirming, the Virginia Supreme Court relied on Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U. S. 302, in rejecting Atkins' contention that he could not be sentenced to death because he is mentally retarded.

Held: Executions of mentally retarded criminals are "cruel and unusual punishments" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 311-321.

(a) A punishment is "excessive," and therefore prohibited by the Amendment, if it is not graduated and proportioned to the offense. E. g., Weems v. United States, 217 U. S. 349, 367. An excessiveness claim is judged by currently prevailing standards of decency. Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 100-101. Proportionality review under such evolving standards should be informed by objective factors to the maximum possible extent, see, e. g., Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U. S. 957, 1000, the clearest and most reliable of which is the legislation enacted by the country's legislatures, Penry, 492 U. S., at 331. In addition to objective evidence, the Constitution contemplates that this Court will bring its own judgment to bear by asking whether there is reason to agree or disagree with the judgment reached by the citizenry and its legislators, e. g., Coker v. Georgia, 433 U. S. 584, 597. Pp. 311-313. (b) Much has changed since Penry's conclusion that the two state statutes then existing that prohibited such executions, even when added to the 14 States that had rejected capital punishment completely, did not provide sufficient evidence of a consensus. 492 U. S., at 334. Subsequently, a significant number of States have concluded that death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal, and similar bills have passed at least one house in other States. It is not so much the number of these States that is significant, but the consistency of the direction of change. Given that anticrime legislation is far more popular than legislation protecting violent criminals, the large number of States prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded persons (and the complete absence of legislation reinstating such executions) provides powerful evidence that today society views mentally retarded offenders as categorically less culpable than the average criminal. The evidence carries even greater force when it is noted that the legislatures addressing the issue have voted overwhelmingly in favor of the prohibition.

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