Death Sentence Commuted In Va. Case

Daryl Atkins was convicted in the killing of an Air Force mechanic.
Daryl Atkins was convicted in the killing of an Air Force mechanic. (Sangjib Min - AP)
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By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2008

YORKTOWN, Va., Jan. 17 -- More than five years after his case made legal history with a U.S. Supreme Court ban on executions of the mentally retarded, Daryl Atkins was spared his own long-held place on Virginia's death row when a judge commuted his sentence to life in prison Thursday.

The reprieve came for reasons that few would have guessed during the ever twisting, nearly 12-year course of the case, which had focused largely on Atkins's mental limitations. Instead, it came because of a Hampton lawyer's allegation of evidence suppression by prosecutors as they prepared for Atkins's murder trial in 1998.

"The court finds that had he [Atkins's attorney] been given the evidence, the outcome might have been different," Judge Prentis Smiley Jr. of York County-Poquoson Circuit Court said after ruling that prosecutors had committed a violation by not fully disclosing the evidence.

The turn of events came in Southeastern Virginia, where Atkins, 30, faced charges in the slaying of Eric Nesbitt, 21, an Air Force mechanic who was shot in York County in August 1996 after being carjacked and robbed.

Atkins and his codefendant, William Jones, ultimately admitted to taking part in the crime, but each man claimed the other did the shooting. In Virginia, only the person who pulls the trigger is eligible for the death penalty.

Jones's testimony against Atkins was a central part of the case against him, and it was Jones's first and only interview with prosecutors and police that came under question in Thursday's proceedings. At that two-hour interview in 1997, Atkins's lawyers alleged, prosecutors coaxed and coached Jones when his statement was not in line with forensic evidence in the case.

The interview was tape recorded, and an expert in audio analysis testified that 16 minutes could not be accounted for.

"We're relieved," said Joseph Migliozzi, Atkins's lead attorney and capital defender for the Southeastern District of Virginia. "We believe the judge took this very seriously, and we feel that he arrived at the fair and appropriate decision."

Atkins, who often stares blankly during court hearings, raised a fist in momentary celebration as he was ushered out of the courtroom.

The decision was made by the same judge who handled Atkins's case when it first came to trial, in the same community, with some of the same lawyers on hand. It was a defeat for Commonwealth's Attorney Eileen M. Addison, who had vigorously denied the contentions of Atkins's legal team.

Addison and former prosecutor Cathy Krinick left the courthouse quietly, declining to comment.

The Atkins case had been taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, when it issued a landmark ruling that prohibited the death penalty for mentally retarded inmates.

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