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The Supreme Court Case and Ruling for Atkins v. Virginia

Updated on October 31, 2017
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

In many ways, music saved my life, and I have the most famous director of the USMC bands to thank for it!

Columbus, Ohio area overpasses were crime scenes of a serial sniper that had a Severe Mental Disorder and possible mental retardation.
Columbus, Ohio area overpasses were crime scenes of a serial sniper that had a Severe Mental Disorder and possible mental retardation. | Source

Background and Precedent for Atkins vs. Virginia

The case ruling of Atkins v. Virginia in 2002 defines a specific type of cruel and unusual punishment that may not be used.

The category of cruel and unusual punishment is disallowed but not specifically defined by the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. The Eighth Amendment outlaws cruel and unusual punishment without stating exactly what that outlawed punishment includes. Atkins v. Virginia establishes a precedent for ruling against one type of punishment as specifically cruel and unusual.

By this case ruling, the legal precedent is set forth that the death penalty may not be levied against a person that possesses a diagnosis of mental retardation.

A troubling 2004 case in Ohio could have benefited more fully from the 2002 precedent, if that precedent had been brought out in court during the 2004 case.

In McCoy v. Ohio, an individual with both mental retardation and paranoid schizophrenia refused to take medications regularly for the latter condition. Partially as a result of this refusal, his behavior became violent during times of non-medication.

Each recurrence of violent behavior escalated and eventually, the individual secured firearms. From May 2003 onward for many months, Charles McCoy, Jr. shot at vehicles passing beneath bridges and highway overpasses on which he stood with the loaded firearms he had purchased. In addition, he did this 24 separate times along the busy I-270 Outerbelt surrounding capital city Columbus, Ohio and along nearby highways. He also shot at houses. In November 2003, he killed a female senior citizen, outraging the public. He was called "The Ohio Highway Sniper."

The public in Ohio was incensed with media reports of the shooter's activities and some called for his execution. McCoy went to trial two years later in May of 2005, but the first trial ended in a hung jury. The mental retardation diagnosis reported by some of the media was not discussed in court, nor does it appear in trial transcripts.

Decisions Of a Hung Jury

The first jury hung reportedly because its members 1) could not decide unanimously whether to convict McCoy and 2) could not decide to give him the death penalty. Jury members may or may not have argued over the death sentence as cruel and unusual punishment, but they definitely could not agree whether McCoy possessed a mental illness or condition - schizophrenia or any other - that resulted in legal insanity.

A new trial included a plea bargain in which McCoy agreed to serve 27 years of incarceration beginning in early August 2009.

Is Charles McCoy, Jr. mentally retarded as well as schizophrenic? This question seems never to have been addressed. If McCoy actually had a diagnosis of mental retardation as well as schizophrenia in 2003, then the 27-year prison sentence might also be determined to be cruel and unusual punishment, according to the precedent set in 2002 by Atkins v. Virginia. However, the McCoy case was never appealed.No IQ testing was done for the defendant during the trial, to my knowledge.

Additional definitions of cruel and unusual punishment may be added to the legal precedent established by Atkins v. Virginia in the future as cases are decided.

Low IQ or the effects of alcohol and drugs?
Low IQ or the effects of alcohol and drugs? | Source

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

August 19, 1996:

Daryl Atkins, aged 18, and his friend William Jones entered a convenience store after a day of drinking and smoking marijuana. They kidnapped a Langley Air Force Base airman, Eric Nesbitt.

During the trial, Aktin's school records were presented. They included IQ testing results with a score of only 59 (average intelligence is 90 to 110). Thus, Atkins suffered from low IQ as well as substance use all day on August 19, 1996; he was extremely impaired mentally.

The IQ test was administered by clinical psychologist Dr. Evan Nelson and confirmed by this doctor in court. The defense suggested to the jury that this level of IQ was in the officially defined mild range of "mental retardation" under DSM-IV, according to the newest interpretive charts therein.

The jury sentenced Atkins to death, but was this just?

Did it seem unusual? Indeed, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 6-3 to overturn the jury's verdict and wrote in their majority report that executing individuals with mental retardation violates the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

This decision was in part was based on the growing number of US States disallowing the death sentence for convicted persons with that have mental retardation in 2002. However, the minority report asserted that the decision was based on the personal preferences of the majority justices only.

Atkins's IQ score was 59. A score of 59 had not historically been considered mild retardation prior to the year 1994 and the publication of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) IV during the Bill Clinton Administration. This was a period of Welfare Reform and associated budget cuts.

The IQ ranges of each level of severity of mental retardation were lowered in 1994 in the DSM IV, making fewer people qualified for Social Security Disability or SSI payments than had qualified for such payments under the DSM III and DSM III-R.

Related to this, Atkins was diagnosed as less severely retarded in 1996 at age 18 than he would have been with the same IQ in 1993 at age 15 under the DSM III-R (He would have been moderately retarded in 1993).

Is it fair to sentence a moderately retarded individual to death? - Probably not.

The IQ score of 59 was previously in the moderate range under DSM III and DSM III-R (1980 - 1993)...However, under the DSM IV and DSM IV-R, an IQ from 50 - 55 to 70 is considered in only the mild range of retardation.

— The Author

The IQ score of 59 was previously in the moderate range under DSM III and III-R (1980 - 1993, years in which I worked closely with MR/DD populations and IQ testing). This IQ level sometimes resulted in the individual being institutionalized or being required to live in a group home for life, while collecting Social Security Disability or SSI payments.

In fact, such a diagnosed individual would not have been living on his own as Atkins was in 1998 and as McCoy was in 2003.

However, under the DSM IV and DSM IV-R, an IQ from 50 - 55 to 70 is considered in the mild range of retardation and may not qualify for disability payments at all in many states. A change in the IQ definition alone made these men legally intelligent enough to live on their own. In reality, neither may have been mentally adequate to do so.

Regardless, any level of mental retardation was set as a precedent that disallows the death penalty by Atkins v. Virginia in 2002. It is cruel and unusual punishment.

Hub Author's Note

Atkins received a death sentence, but in Atkins v. Virginia the US Supreme Court overturned the death sentence in 2002. Additional legal battles over Atkins v. Virginia occurred in 2005 and 2008, resulting in arguments about the impairment of alcohol and drug use mimicking mental retardation and poor performance in Atkins in high school. Misconduct of the prosecution in the original case was also uncovered.

In 2005, Atkins was found to have an IQ of 70, the low end of "borderline retardation" and high enough for the defendant to be executed in Virginia. This execution was delayed however, and his sentence was commuted to life in 2008 and upheld on appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court in 2009. The dissenting opinion still wanted an execution.

Research For the Future

Have the lower IQ levels for the diagnoses of "mental retardation" that allow more people to live independently contributed to an increase in crime? That has yet to be determined.

Changes In IQ Levels for Diagnosis: 1983, 1994, 2013

Moderate, severe, and profound levels of mental retardation can qualify an individual for Social Security Disability Income or SSI after 1994 under the IQ guidelines of DSM IV and IV-R.

Former levels of retardation compared with those in the DSM IV and IV-R are shown below. The IQ levels in parenthesis were the levels I was trained to observe and use for diagnosis in my US State from 1983 - 1994, in

  1. Educational facilities and
  2. Group homes.

The DSM 5 (2013 - 2024) maintains the same IQ definitions as the DSM IV-R.

  • Profound (formerly called Idiots and having an IQ less than 40) -- Today, IQ less than 25 in the DSM IV-R and often requiring Life Support.
  • Severe (formerly Imbeciles and IQ about 41 - 60) -- Today, IQ of from 20 - 25 up to 35-40; or overall 20 to 40.
  • Moderate (formerly Morons, "Trainable", and IQ 61 - 70) -- Today, IQ of from 35-40 up to 50-55; or overall 35 - 55.
  • Mild (formerly "Educable" and IQ about 71 - 80) -- Today, IQ of 50 to 55 up to 70.
  • Borderline retardation (formerly IQ about 80 - 89) -- Today, IQ of about 70 - 89.
  • Average Intelligence -- IQ of 90 - 110.

What Is Cruel Or Unusual Punishment?

In terms of mental status, the legal thinking seems to be that the more severe a mental illness or developmental disability (including mental retardation), the more cruel and unusual any punishment might be. A death sentence may be extremely cruel and unusual for these individuals. Atkins vs. Virginia (2002) is the first accepted legal precedent for beginning to define exactly "cruel or unusual" punishments.

Thus, the first definition of cruel and unusual punishment is:

"The sentence of death to any person diagnosed with mental retardation."

The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Citation for the Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment

Prison cell block
Prison cell block | Source


  • Diagnostic and Style Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, Editions III, III-R, IV, VI-R, and 5; published from 1983 through 2013.
  • Constitution of the United States of America and commentary. Retrieved June 27, 2014.

© 2012 Patty Inglish MS


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