Hastings Law Journal


In 2002, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Atkins v. Virginia. In Atkins, the Court created a categorical exemption from the death penalty for the mentally retarded, holding that the execution of such individuals violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. However, the Court left to the states the difficult task of implementing the newly announced exemption.

The California Supreme Court confronted this challenge in the case of In re Hawthorne. In Hawthorne, the court was forced to decide what standards and procedures a court should use in assessing claims for Atkins relief raised by individuals already on death row. The court resolved such issues as how an Atkins claim should be raised, the burden of proof, the type of evidence that may be considered in proving mental retardation, and the entity that would be responsible for deciding if an inmate was mentally retarded.

However, the most significant issue dealt with by the Hawthorne court was the definition of mental retardation. This Note assesses the three major components of the court's definitional discussion, specifically the court's decision that it was the appropriate body to decide the definitional issue, the decision to adopt a clinical based definition of mental retardation, and finally the decision on what evidence an offender must offer in order to prove the two most significant prongs of the mental retardation definition. Analyzing the court's reasoning and conclusions as to each component, this Note argues that Hawthorne exhibits a combination of both strengths and weaknesses. Within the same opinion the court reaches both correct and incorrect conclusions about how to define mental retardation and adopts a reasoning that is both principled and thorough as well as arbitrary and incomplete.

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