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Inmate in ruling on retarded still faces death

ROANOKE, Va. -- The Virginia inmate whose case persuaded the US Supreme Court to bar the execution of mentally retarded killers remains on death row more than a year later, and prosecutors are determined to see him die.

Daryl Renard Atkins, who has been reported to have an IQ of 59, might not even benefit from the landmark ruling that bears his name.

Atkins still must prove in state court that he is mentally retarded before he can get a life sentence. Prosecutor Eileen M. Addison said she will make that as difficult as possible.

"They have an expert who believes he is retarded, and we have an expert who says he's not," Addison said. A jury will decide the question in a proceeding set to begin on March 29.

While the high court's ruling in June 2002 protected the severely mentally retarded, it provided little guidance for the far greater number of inmates like Atkins who are borderline cases.

"Virtually every mentally retarded person who has enough capacity to get in serious legal trouble is going to be at the upper end" of the IQ scale, said David Bruck with the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project in South Carolina.

The high court left it to states to determine which of the 3,504 death row inmates in America fall into the mentally retarded category.

Most states have followed nationally accepted guidelines that define mental retardation as significantly below-average intellect combined with low "adaptive" skills such as communicating and taking care of oneself.

But when drawing the line between inmates with low intelligence and those who are mentally retarded, states have disagreed, making it easier to get off death row in some states and harder in others.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Florida requires inmates to show below-average intelligence at some point by age 18. But in Indiana, inmates need only show it before age 22.

"There really is variation right now because the states have not had much guidance on how to deal with this," said Richard Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.

It will probably take years of litigation before a national standard is developed and the criminal justice system agrees on what kinds of records inmates would have to produce and what kind of tests they would have to undergo, he said.

Atkins, 26, was sentenced to death for shooting a Langley Air Force Base enlisted man for beer money in 1996. Atkins's accomplice, William A. Jones, testified against him and received a life sentence. After hearing the Atkins case, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutionally cruel to execute the mentally retarded.

Since then, dozens of inmates have appealed their death sentences, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Nevada inmate Thomas Nevius had his death sentence reduced to two life terms without parole last year. Many others have delayed their execution dates to make time for additional mental evaluations, Dieter said.

In Virginia, however, triple killer Percy Walton failed to get off death row despite recent IQ scores as low as 66. Walton, who according to his lawyers has a degenerative mental condition, failed to show mental retardation at the onset of adulthood, as required by Virginia law.

Texas prosecutor Rodney Connerly also is trying to keep the state's longest-serving death row inmate headed for execution, even though Walter Bell Jr. has scored around 70 on IQ tests. Connerly said Bell killed Fred and Irene Chisum of Port Arthur in a way that was too sophisticated for someone mentally retarded.

"Mr. Bell had a photo ID made up with a false name. He had the end of an extension cord to tie them up. He went to their house and killed both of them -- had Mrs. Chisum write him checks under a false name," the prosecutor said.

Atkins's lawyer, George Rogers III, said he hopes Atkins will benefit from the Supreme Court ruling that bears his name, but it could be a fight.

"We're in virgin territory on this," Rogers said. "We understand what the law says, but the step-by-step process is one that is basically breaking new ground."

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