Death row inmate’s intelligence at center of jury trial
YORKTOWN, Va. – Prospective jurors were questioned Monday for a trial that will determine whether a man whose case led to the Supreme Court ban on executing the mentally retarded falls into that category himself.”This case is going to be unique in the annals of judicial history,” York County Circuit Judge Prentis Smiley Jr. told the pool of some 70 potential jurors for the case of Daryl Atkins.The high court three years ago sided with Atkins’ lawyers in ruling that execution of the mentally retarded is unconstitutionally cruel, but did not decide whether Atkins was retarded.Atkins, 27, has been on death row since 1998 for the robbery and murder of an Air Force enlisted man.Smiley told the potential jurors that their only assignment would be to decide Atkins’ mental capabilities.”If he is mentally retarded, by law his sentence is commuted to life in prison,” Smiley said.Atkins’ lawyers bear the burden of proving that the slight, balding man is mentally retarded. If they do not do so, the judge told the potential jurors, another court has already determined that he will be executed.While the Supreme Court ruling protected the severely mentally retarded, it set no clear standard for the far greater number of inmates, including Atkins, who are borderline. That was left to the states, which have disagreed on where to draw the line.Virginia law sets an IQ of 70 as the cutoff, but also takes into account social skills and the ability to care for oneself.Atkins, who did not finish high school, scored 59 on an IQ test in 1998, but had scores as high as 74 and 76 on more recent tests. Virginia law also requires that mental retardation be determined by age 18, but Atkins was not tested as a youth.Among defense attorneys’ questions to potential jurors during the daylong selection process Monday was whether they thought they could tell whether someone was mentally retarded by their appearance and by talking to them.A prosecution question was whether the potential jurors understood that there are differences between mental retardation and other mental disabilities.The defense brought in a psychologist to help decide which jurors to strike. A pool of 27 chosen Monday will be narrowed to a panel of 12 and three alternates before the trial begins Tuesday.The trial is scheduled to last two weeks, with testimony from about 100 witnesses.Atkins and William Jones killed Airman 1st Class Eric Nesbitt, 21, in 1996 for beer money. Nesbitt was abducted outside a convenience store, forced to withdraw money from an automated teller machine and driven to a desolate road, where he was shot eight times.Prosecutors said Atkins was the triggerman, and Jones received a life sentence in a plea agreement.Before the high court’s ruling, 18 states already had laws exempting the mentally retarded from execution. Eight, including Virginia, have revised their laws to comply with the ruling.