A Virginia jury decided today that a death-row inmate whose case sparked a landmark Supreme Court ruling does not meet the standard for mental retardation and can be executed for the 1996 murder of an Air Force enlisted man.
The jury in York County in the southeastern part of the state essentially upheld a death sentence that had been meted out twice before to Daryl Atkins, 27, a high school dropout from Hampton, Va., with a history of drug use and robberies.
After the jury decided that Atkins was not mentally retarded, the judge in the case set his execution for Dec. 2.
In an appeal of Atkins's earlier death sentence, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 barred states from executing mentally retarded criminals, although it said they should be punished for their crimes. The vote was 6 to 3. But the court made no ruling on the highly disputed issue of whether Atkins himself was mentally retarded and sent the case back to Virginia to make that determination. The result was another trial, culminating in today's decision in a small courthouse in colonial Yorktown.
At the latest trial, a defense psychologist testified that he believed Atkins met the standard for mental retardation, with IQ test scores of 59, 67 and 74 at various times. In Virginia, a person who scores 70 or below generally is considered mentally retarded.
Prosecutors argued that that Atkins was smart enough to use a firearm and to hide his involvement in the crime during a police interview. They attributed his troubles not to mental retardation but to poor choices, including laziness, bad study habits, drugs and alcohol, Washington Post staff writer Donna St. George reported.
"No one, not the teachers, not the guidance counselors, not his family, not his friends . . . no one believed Daryl Atkins was mentally retarded until he was facing the death penalty," said Eileen Addison, the commonwealth's attorney in York County.
The NAACP weighed in on the case, saying it was unfair that an accomplice, William A. Jones, was given a life sentence after making a deal with prosecutors, while Atkins was sentenced to death. Jones is eight years older than Atkins.
Atkins, a user of marijuana and crack cocaine, dropped out of high school in 1996 at age 18 and participated in a series of robberies. In one of them, he tried to rob a woman by himself and ended up shooting her in the stomach without taking any money, St. George reported.
After a bout of drinking and marijuana smoking on the night of Aug. 16, 1996, Atkins and Jones went to a 7-Eleven in Hampton, where they encountered Eric Nesbitt, a 21-year-old airman from upstate New York assigned to nearby Langley Air Force Base. They forced their way into Nesbitt's Nissan pickup truck and abducted him at gunpoint, taking $60 from his wallet. Then they drove him to an ATM where they ordered him to withdraw $200 more.
Eventually Atkins and Jones took Nesbitt to a secluded field, where the young airman was shot eight times and left to die. Atkins was also shot in the leg. Both Atkins and Jones later claimed that the other man fired the shots. But a jail cellmate testified that Atkins admitted shooting at Nesbitt. The cellmate also quoted Atkins as saying he was so high that he shot himself in the leg during the incident.
In February 1998, Atkins was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. But the Virginia Supreme Court, ruling on a technicality, ordered a new sentencing a year later.
In August 1999, a jury sentenced Atkins to death for the second time.