A Question of Culpability

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 23, 2005

At 18, Daryl Atkins had racked up a childhood of failures. He flunked out of second grade, barely made it through fourth, and took home a heavy load of D's and F's on his report cards. By high school, a teacher decided to put the books aside to focus him on more practical skills: reading menus, understanding road signs.

This was around the time that Atkins failed driver's education and did so poorly at football practice that he was kicked off his high school team in Hampton, Va. The teenager regularly confused his right with his left and had trouble learning plays, according to a recent psychological report.

Now, a decade later, there is a fierce debate about whether these details and others demonstrate that Atkins is mentally retarded. Prosecutors argue that he is not, with one of their experts pointing out his use of such words as parab le and deja vu and his recitation of the mathematical value of pi.

At a trial that will start Monday, a jury in York County will decide the issue, knowing that a death sentence hangs in the balance. Unless Atkins is deemed retarded, he faces execution by the State of Virginia.

His unusual trial -- for the carjacking murder of a young Air Force mechanic -- comes two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of another Virginia inmate and at a time of heightened scrutiny about how the death penalty is carried out nationally.

The Atkins case was part of that scrutiny in 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins's favor with a ban on executions of the mentally retarded. The court said the practice amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment" for inmates such as Atkins, who experts said has an IQ of 59 and a mental age between 9 and 12 years old.

Nationally, the landmark ruling has changed the fate of dozens of other inmates, whose death sentences have been commuted to life in prison. But in an irony of the legal system, Atkins was not among them because the U.S. Supreme Court never weighed in on the issue of whether Atkins is retarded.

It sent that question back to Virginia to be sorted out.

And so it is that inside the same tidy courthouse where Atkins faced trial in 1998, the same bespectacled judge will preside and the same prosecutor will push for execution as the same defendant will face another jury. This time, the issue is not guilt, but culpability.

As it turns out, only Atkins's deficits can save him.

Hitting Bottom

In August 1996, Daryl Atkins was 18 years old, without a job or a plan -- and on a down slide. He had dropped out of school that year, not having made it past 10th grade, and was using marijuana and crack. In recent months, he had joined in a string of robberies. Most recently, he set out to rob a woman on his own and wound up shooting her in the stomach without taking money.

Now, on a Friday, his friend William Jones dropped by, and the two passed hours drinking beer and gin and smoking marijuana. Jones was eight years older, a neighbor and restaurant dishwasher with whom Atkins had committed a break-in that summer. Sometime after 11:30 p.m., Atkins and Jones wandered to a 7-Eleven with a borrowed gun.

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