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Virginia high court orders new sentencing trial for death row inmate

[JURIST] The Supreme Court of Virginia [official website] has ordered [text, PDF; summary] a new trial for death row inmate Daryl Atkins, instructing the trial court to determine whether Atkins is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for the death penalty [JURIST news archive] after the 2002 US Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia [text] declaring capital punishment for the mentally retarded unconstitutional. Atkins had been sentenced to death for robbery and murder in 1996 when he was 18 years old, and the US Supreme Court remanded the case to determine if Atkins was mentally retarded, where a Virginia jury determined Atkins was not retarded [JURIST report] last year. Justice Cynthia D. Kinser of the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday opined that the jury on remand had been improperly informed of Atkins' previous death sentence, which "prejudiced his right to a fair trial on the issue of mental retardation." Kinser added that one of the expert witnesses that testified in Atkins' second trial was not truly an expert witness because he had never administered one of the tests evaluating Atkins' mental status until he tried the test on Atkins.

After the US Supreme Court ruling, states were required to define mental retardation and Virginia defined mental retardation as an IQ of 70 or lower before the age of 18 with an inability to function in society, a definition in line with that of the American Association on Mental Retardation [official website]. Atkins had scored between 59 and 76 on four different IQ tests after the 1996 shooting, prompting the Virginia jury to determine he was not mentally retarded. Atkins had been scheduled for execution last December. Believing that Atkins is not mentally retarded, state prosecutors plan to go ahead with a new sentencing trial, instead of conceding that Atkins is mentally retarded. AP has more. The Virginian-Pilot has local coverage.

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