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Intellectual Disability: A Digest of Complex Concepts in Atkins Proceedings
By Nancy Haydt
In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Atkins v. Virginia,1 which categorically banned the death penalty for defendants who have intellectual disability.2 Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins, hundreds of capital defendants’ cases have come before state and federal courts for factual determination of the presence of this disability. A review of these cases demonstrates that courts, attorneys, law enforcement, and forensic experts have limited understanding of the scientific fundamentals of a diagnosis of intellectual disability.
Mental health professionals are often retained as testifying experts in Atkins proceedings despite the absence of special training or prior clinical experience with patients who have intellectual disability. Many Atkins cases turn on unscientific expert opinion, stereotype, and mischaracterization of the disability. This pseudo-scientific testimony often goes unchallenged regardless of the fact that so-called experts may not quali
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