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13News Now Vault: Atkins v. Virginia and a landmark death penalty ruling

On June 20, 2002, the United States Supreme Court would hand down a ruling that would change the scope of the death penalty following a murder in York County.

YORKTOWN, Va. — At the end of March 2021, then-Governor Ralph Northam signed historic legislation that banned the death penalty in Virginia.

The Commonwealth became the first southern state to abolish capital punishment, but it wasn’t the first time Virginia would be at the center of a death penalty crossroads.

On June 20, 2002, the United States Supreme Court would hand down a ruling that would change the scope of the penalty following a murder in York County.

The crime was horrific. In 1996, Daryl Atkins was arrested for his role in abducting, robbing, and killing Eric Nesbitt, an airman based out of Langley Air Force Base.

ATM footage of Nesbitt, sandwiched in between Atkins and an accomplice, was taken just before the two men drove Nesbitt to a remote area and shot him eight times, killing the airman.

Atkins was sentenced to death. But his mental competency would come to light and the Supreme Court agreed to review his sentence.

The high court ruled a death sentence for someone with an intellectual disability was unconstitutional based on the 8th Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

“To treat someone with a small-child mind as an adult, and give them the death penalty should shock the conscience of the court, and it should shock the conscience and the standards of our society here in America,” said Atkins’ attorney George Rogers, following the ruling.

The decision set a new legal precedent, which paved the way for a total ban of the death penalty in Virginia almost 20 years later.

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