Little has been ordinary about the latest trial of death-row inmate Daryl Atkins. Since testimony began Tuesday, the trial has been a search for meaning in failing grades, IQ test scores and poorly played Monopoly games, with the lawyers pointing to signs of Atkins's highly debated mental ability.
For Atkins, the stakes could not be higher. He faces execution for the 1996 carjacking murder of a 21-year-old Air Force mechanic in Hampton, Va., and that death sentence will stand unless jurors decide that he qualifies for protection under the U.S. Supreme Court's ban on executions of the mentally retarded.
Ironically, it was Atkins's case that led to the landmark ruling in 2002. But the court left the contested issue of Atkins's mental state up to Virginia.
Three years later, this has made for an unusual trial that has drawn national attention to a small courthouse in colonial Yorktown and spurred dozens of witnesses to parse through memories of Atkins's behavior as a young child and teenager, years before the murder that prompted his death-penalty sentence.
"I really felt like there was something cognitively missing," testified teacher Sigrid Bomba, who had Atkins in a 10th grade remedial reading class in Hampton and noted he was five grade levels behind his peers. "Something wasn't clicking. Something was not working right in the way he processed information."
Prosecutors have consistently argued that Atkins is not mentally retarded, and this week they portrayed him as a young man whose trouble was not his mental limitations but his choices: laziness, poor study habits, drugs, alcohol and tardiness.
"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, commonwealth's attorney in York County.
An education expert for the defense said yesterday that the school system had failed Atkins. Other witnesses recalled signs of Atkins's deficits.
Avery Gordon, a former classmate, said he once let Atkins copy his homework in middle school. "Don't copy it word for word," Gordon said he had warned. But Atkins did anyway.
"Even my name was on it," Gordon recounted.
Gordon said that when Atkins played Monopoly in class he "would miss his turn to collect money when people landed on his property." And when Atkins owed money in the game, he let other players count out the right amount, rather than do it himself.
Yesterday, the case shifted away from personal recollections as experts testified about Atkins's IQ scores. Evan Nelson, a forensic psychologist hired by defense attorneys, said he believed Atkins meets the standard for mental retardation, with scores of 59, 67 and 74 at various times. Atkins was mildly depressed during the first test, and his scores rose over time, in part due to the structure of prison, Nelson said.
Still, Nelson also acknowledged a fine line between mild mental retardation and borderline intellect, especially with IQ scores in the low 70s. "That's the bugaboo: understanding the shades of gray," he said.
Prosecutors raised the issue of bias in testing and took issue with the way Nelson came up with Atkins's scores.
Earlier, prosecutors asked witnesses whether they knew of Atkins doing drugs or drinking alcohol. Most said no. His mother, Elvira Bullock, said she first learned of his drug use when he was 16 or 17.
Several teachers said they thought Atkins should have been tested and placed in special education classes. Among them was teacher Bob Killen, who gave Atkins mostly F's in his high school history class but testified, "I think he did the best he could."
Atkins, now 27, showed little expression amid Tuesday's testimony about his shortfalls and humiliations. Dressed in a tan button-down shirt and pleated trousers, he shook his head once when a prosecutor asked a teacher if she would be surprised to hear Atkins had a girlfriend.
Watching the proceedings in the small courtroom were civil rights activists, media and the family of murder victim Eric Nesbitt.
NAACP leaders said it was unfair that Atkins's co-defendant, William Jones, had been given a life sentence after making a deal with prosecutors, while Atkins, eight years younger, had been sentenced to death.
Mary Sloan, the victim's mother, sitting through hours of testimony, said the proceedings were disappointing. "All the care-taking to save someone," she said. "If someone would have saved Eric, it would have been nice."