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Life sentence for Atkins upheld

The capital murder case of Daryl Renard Atkins finally appears to be over.

The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled today that the prosecution had no way to challenge the trial judge’s commutation of Atkins’ death penalty to life in prison without possibility of parole.

York County Circuit Judge N. Prentiss Smiley commuted the sentence after concluding that prosecutors had coached Atkins’ co-defendant in the November 1996 robbery and murder of Eric Michael Nesbit.The Supreme Court majority rejected an argument that Smiley had no authority to do anything other than conduct a hearing on whether Atkins was mentally retarded at the time of the killing.The U.S. Supreme Court set aside Atkins’ death penalty in 2002 in ruling that a mentally retarded defendant cannot be executed. The high court remanded the case for determination of whether Atkins is in fact retarded.

It was during those proceedings that defense attorneys uncovered evidence of the alleged coaching, and Smiley concluded that it had occurred after holding a hearing.

Justice Cynthia D. Kinser and Donald W. Lemons dissented. They said Smiley had no authority to conduct such a hearing and noted that the issue could have been raised in a habeas corpus proceeding after the determination of whether Atkins is retarded.

By Alan Cooper

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