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Cover Image: Eligible for Execution: The Story of the Daryl Atkins Case
  • Date: 08/01/2008
  • Format: Print Paperback
  • Price: $45.00
  • ISBN: 978-0-87289-418-1
  • Pages: 284
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Eligible for Execution: The Story of the Daryl Atkins Case
Thomas G. Walker, Emory University

This riveting and enlightening narrative unfolds on the night of August 16, 1996, with the brutal and senseless murder of Eric Nesbitt, a young man stationed at Langley Air Force Base, at the hands of 18-year-old Daryl Atkins. Over the course of more than a decade, Atkins’s case has bounced between the lowest and the highest levels of the judicial system. Found guilty and then sentenced to death in 1998 for Nesbitt’s murder, the Atkins case was then taken up in 2002 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The issue before the justices: given Daryl Atkins’s mental retardation, would his execution constitute cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment? A 6–3 vote said yes.

Daryl Atkins’s situation was far from being resolved though. Prosecutors claimed that Atkins failed to meet the statutory definition of mental retardation and reinstituted procedures to carry out his death sentence. Back in circuit court, the jury returned its verdict: Daryl Atkins was not retarded. Atkins’s attorneys promptly filed a notice of appeal, and the case continues today.

Drawing on interviews with key participants; direct observation of the hearings; and close examination of court documents, transcripts, and press accounts, Thomas G. Walker provides readers with a rare view of the entire judicial process. Never losing sight of the stakes in a death penalty case, he explains each step in Atkins’s legal journey from the interactions of local law enforcement, to the decision-making process of the state prosecutor, to the Supreme Court’s ruling, and beyond. Walker sheds light on how legal institutions and procedures work in real life—and how they are all interrelated—to help students better understand constitutional issues, the courts, and the criminal justice system. Throughout, Walker also addresses how disability, race, and other key demographic and social issues affect the case and society’s views on the death penalty.

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Table of Contents

1. The Murder of Eric Nesbitt

2. Investigation and Prosecution

3. Capital Punishment and the Constitution

4. Retardation, the Death Penalty, and Johnny Paul Penry

5. The Trial

6. Sentencing

7. Approaching the Supreme Court

8. Persuading the Justices

9. The Supreme Court Decides

10. Epilogue


Eligible for Execution will make a great addition to a variety of courses on the U.S. legal system. This book fits nicely into an approach that seeks to highlight the intersections between law and the political environment as well as the general working of the legal system. By focusing on the Daryl Atkins case in his new book, Thomas Walker provides a great example of how cases proceed through the system, and how the Court delegates responsibility to the lower courts for implementation of its decisions. Because the case involves the death penalty, it will easily attract students’ attention: this is an issue in which they are consistently interested and motivated to discuss.”

- Christine Nemacheck, College of William and Mary

“Walker shows a keen attention to detail and an absolutely phenomenal energy in archival research. Eligible for Execution integrates and weaves together the case facts and chronology with appropriate discussion of judicial procedure, appellate procedure, prosecutorial discretion and police investigative techniques. It is written with an almost breathless anticipation as one progresses through each of the chapters. In fact, I wanted to read the final chapters to learn what happened to Atkins—even though I already knew the answer. Dr. Walker has written in a taut, logically-organized and accessible manner for undergraduates of many different disciplines.”

- Drew Lanier, University of Central Florida

“I enjoyed reading this book. I have been looking for something like this to assign in my Constitutional Law and Judicial Process classes for some time. It incorporates information not only about the pertinent facts of the case, but illustrates the legal process very effectively. The reader gets a much better picture of all the work that gets done before a case even comes to the Supreme Court. Thus, it provides a concrete example for students to understand. Students really crave more of the personal angle of the kind this book provides.”

- Valerie Hoekstra, Arizona State University
Thomas G. Walker, Emory University
Thomas G. Walker is Goodrich C. White Professor of Political Science at Emory University, where he has won several teaching awards for his courses on constitu¬tional law and the judicial process. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky. His book, A Court Divided, written with Deborah J. Barrow, won the prestigious V. O. Key Award for the best book on southern politics. He is coauthor of The Supreme Court Compendium: Data, Decisions, and Developments, 5th edition (2012), with Lee Epstein, Jeffrey A. Segal, and Harold J. Spaeth, and author of Eligible for Execution (2009).

Additional Resources:

Sources and references, case update, case exhibits, appellate decisions, Supreme Court oral arguments, etc.



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