Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 7 (2002)

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Opinion of the Court

The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the imposition of the death penalty. 260 Va. 375, 385, 534 S. E. 2d 312, 318 (2000). Atkins did not argue before the Virginia Supreme Court that his sentence was disproportionate to penalties imposed for similar crimes in Virginia, but he did contend "that he is mentally retarded and thus cannot be sentenced to death." Id., at 386, 534 S. E. 2d, at 318. The majority of the state court rejected this contention, relying on our holding in Penry. 260 Va., at 387, 534 S. E. 2d, at 319. The court was "not willing to commute Atkins' sentence of death to life imprisonment merely because of his IQ score." Id., at 390, 534 S. E. 2d, at 321.

Justice Hassell and Justice Koontz dissented. They rejected Dr. Samenow's opinion that Atkins possesses average intelligence as "incredulous as a matter of law," and concluded that "the imposition of the sentence of death upon a criminal defendant who has the mental age of a child between the ages of 9 and 12 is excessive." Id., at 394, 395- 396, 534 S. E. 2d, at 323-324. In their opinion, "it is indefensible to conclude that individuals who are mentally retarded are not to some degree less culpable for their criminal acts. By definition, such individuals have substantial limitations not shared by the general population. A moral and civilized society diminishes itself if its system of justice does not afford recognition and consideration of those limitations in a meaningful way." Id., at 397, 534 S. E. 2d, at 325.

Because of the gravity of the concerns expressed by the dissenters, and in light of the dramatic shift in the state legislative landscape that has occurred in the past 13 years, we granted certiorari to revisit the issue that we first addressed in the Penry case. 533 U. S. 976 (2001).

529. Dr. Samenow attributed Atkins' "academic performance [that was] by and large terrible" to the fact that he "is a person who chose to pay attention sometimes, not to pay attention others, and did poorly because he did not want to do what he was required to do." Id., at 480-481.

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