Is this killer too simple to die - or too smart to live?
July 26, 2005
From Tim Reid in Washington
The jury must determine if Daryl Atkins is mentally retarded, or whether his IQ has increased enough in recent years to allow the state of Virginia to put him to death.
Atkins, 27, on death row for a murder in 1996, was named in a landmark Supreme Court ruling three years ago that declared it unconstitutional to execute those who were mentally retarded.
But the intellectual stimulation that Atkins has received since his conviction, after hours spent with his defence team, is believed to have raised his IQ above 70, the cut-off point for being classified as retarded in Virginia, which makes him eligible to die. Atkins, a school drop-out, scored 59 in an IQ test in 1998 but has recorded 74 and 76 in more recent tests.
Evan Nelson, who tested Atkins in 1998 and 2004, wrote in a report last year that “his constant contact with the many lawyers that worked on his case” gave him more intellectual stimulation in prison than he received during childhood.
Atkins’s case is not clear cut. A key prosecution argument will be that he has never been retarded. Under Virginia law, mental retardation must be determined before the age of 18. Atkins’s IQ was never tested until he passed the age of 18.
The execution exam
The Sunday Times Magazine
March 06, 2005
Investigation by Leni and Peter Gillman
For 23 years on death row, Howard Neal has protested his innocence. He has a mental age of eight but has learnt to read and write in prison. Now he must take an IQ test. If he solves a series of simple puzzles, he dies.
... Neal has been on death row for 23 years. He was convicted of kidnap and murder in 1982 and sentenced to die in the Mississippi gas chamber.
... Neal inhabits a cell 6ft square. He is allowed out for four hours' exercise a week. In summer, temperatures soar above 100F (37.7C). The death-row suits are made of nylon and are unbearably hot, but there is no air conditioning or a fan, and no access to cold water. The light is left on 24 hours a day and the cell is infested with mosquitoes. Once, family visitors could stay all day; then visits were restricted to an hour. Neal's mother stopped coming; he last saw her in 1992.
All this for a crime that Neal insists he did not commit. His trial can only be described as a travesty. The evidence against him was desperately thin, consisting of one unsupported confession and a single, shaky witness sighting. Although a federal court found that Neal was unfairly sentenced to death, it refused to give him a reprieve.
... Now a new battle looms. Neal has an IQ of 54 and a mental age of eight, classifying him in the US as mentally retarded ...
... If he scores well, his reward will be a journey to Unit 32's execution chamber. But even if Neal falls below the 70 watershed, he may not be spared. In two cases, Mississippi has accepted the psychologists' verdict. In others, it has gone on the offensive. Prosecutors have attacked the validity of the tests and have accused prisoners of deliberately failing.
... In its rawness, its catalogue of family cruelty and abuse, his story resembles something out of those talismanic Mississippi writers Tennessee Williams or William Faulkner. It can be related from details in the court records, and from Neal's letters, written in short, repetitive sentences, after a fellow prisoner taught him to read and write.
... The psychologist noted that he asked if she thought he was mentally retarded. She asked what he thought that meant, and he replied: "It means you're a bad person, a nobody."
Neal, the psychologist related, had been proud to show her that he could read and write. He was also "highly motivated" to do well on the tests, and appeared not to know that his life could depend on the outcome. He was disappointed when she told him it was time to stop, and asked her to let him finish it.