A Critical Book Analysis of Eligible for Execution by Thomas Walker


Thomas G. Walker is a writer and a political science professor who has taught in various institutions of higher learning. In his book, Eligible for Execution, Thomas Walker mostly revolves around the Daryl Atkins case. Thorough the Atkins case, the author addressed a number of topics. The book addressed the issue of constitutionalism in advanced and developing democracies. In addition, the author analyses the issue of judicial fairness in multi ethnic societies. In this respect, Thomas Walker provides a look at how the judicial process takes place and an understandable explanation of how capital punishment comes into play in a case. It can also be argued that the book provides readers with a look into the hierarchy of judicial system and its powers. This paper provides critical examination of how race, disability, social issues and the court of public opinion impact on court proceedings by an example of Walker’s book, Eligible for Execution.

Summary of the Book

In the first chapter of the book, the author broached a number of pressing issues that citizens face under political pluralism. Walker begins by narrating a scene where a young man by the name Eric Nesbitt was suspiciously murdered. In the course of investigations, The images from the bank surveillance camera led to the capture and arrest of 26 year old Jones Williams (the driver) and 18 year old Daryl Atkins, who was the third man in the car holding Nesbitt at gunpoint. However, after careful examination, an 18 year old Daryl Atkins became the principle suspect in the murder of Eric Nesbitt. According to Walker (2008), Eric Nesbitt murder case kept on rotating from lower courts to high courts for over a decade. In a move, the prosecutor, being after the capital punishment for Atkins, allowed Jones to plead guilty to non-capital murder as long as Jones testified in court against his co-accused, Atkins. Daryl Atkins was convicted of capital murder in February 1998 and, thus, sentenced to death.


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However, according to Walker (2008), Atkins convictions raised a number of legal questions. Therefore, an appeal was launched in the United States Supreme Court. When Atkins case was heard in the United States Supreme court, the justices made a landmark ruling that was to set precedent from henceforth. The justices, in great contrast to their ruling in a case preceding the case of the Atkins which involved Penry and Lynaugh, reversed the court ruling to award Atkins the death penalty. The justices, in their ruling, cited that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibited awarding of the capital punishment to mentally retarded offenders, should be considered in this case.

Immediately after the Supreme Court verdict, pundits began probing the case. Again, just like in the ruling of the appeal court, the issue of the Eighth Amendment was raised once more.  Dr. Stanton Samenow conducted interviews on Atkins and came with the results that Atkins was a mentally retarded person, hence,  able to comprehend and use words such as ‘parable’ and ‘decimal’ correctly In a rare turn of events, an appeal was launched and the Supreme Court, out of its own volition was decided to relook into the case. According to the author, this case has never been concluded up to date.

Thomas Walker used interviews, courts records and transcripts to provide readers with a rare look into the events surrounding the Atkins case. In every chapter, Walker explains the legal journey right from the actions of the law enforcement officers up to the actions of Supreme Court justices. The author provides an in-depth analysis of how judicial institutions work in real life scenarios and how legal institutions collaborate to serve the population in a democratic environment. Walker’s aim was to demonstrate how race, disability, social issues and the court of public opinion impact on court proceedings.

Analysis and Evaluation of the Book

Walkers’ argument calls to human side of every person. As much as he tries to show what goes into a case before one is sentenced to death, he also shows that the aim of any court is justice and to ensure that the justice served is just and unbiased. The enlightening litigation strategies in the book show a new side of the judiciary. The death penalty, as much as it may sound cruel, is crucial for preventing crimes through instilling fear in potential criminals (Walker, 2008). Walker does not take anything away from its importance as long as it is not misused by the judiciary and only served to those who do deserve it. Like in this case, Atkins, if it were not for the fact that the prosecution had breached its duty while prosecuting his case would have most certainly been sentenced to death since in more than one occasion his defense could not prove that he was mentally retarded. Therefore, although his sentence was reduced, he did deserve the death sentence. Nevertheless, the fact that the courts gave him several opportunities to maintain innocence, demonstrates fairness of the judicial system that Walker tries to bring out.

This argument is supported by the fact that the Supreme Court had previously granted certiorari in another case in North Carolina involving Ernest McCarver, a condemned murderer. This was so that they could examine if executing mentally retarded offenders could remain consistent with the Eighth Amendment and evolving standards of decency. North Carolina state went ahead and enacted a legislation that exempted mentally retarded offenders from the capital punishment. So yet again Walker provides more evidence proving his argument by taking different case as an example this time; although the McCarver case was dismissed by the high court as being controversial, it still points to the same argument Walker is trying to prove.

The attorneys of Atkins had themselves not thought of that line of argument as they had not presented the Eighth Amendment issue in their original petition. They only made this change in the light of the decision of justices to consider that question in McCarver. This actually means without the justices decision to consider the Eighth Amendment Atkins would have had absolutely no chance, since his defense itself had no strategy how to defend the client (Walker, 2008). Most of the writers who have reviewed this book would agree with the idea that the ruling made by the court represented a jurisprudential milestone in the judicial process. Walkers’ analysis of the ruling by the justices that reversed death sentence of Atkins as well as announced the constitutional prohibition to execute offenders who are mentally retarded is very informative. He in fact has avoided going too deep into law terminologies and has just explained it in a most basic manner such that those not well versed about law can easily understand it.

The fact that the supreme court found the findings of the jury set up to determine if Atkins was mentally retarded to have been flawed after the court had sentenced him to death, and asked that new proceedings to be held to determine whether Atkins was mentally retarded shows the power of the supreme court and its willingness to ensure that nobody gets unjust trial, especially when it has to do with the capital punishment (Walker, 2008). Still, the court, after reviewing the video tape of the prosecutor interviewing Jones and establishing wrong doing, changed the death penalty and to life imprisonment.

Daryl Atkins attorneys now bared the burden of proving that their client was mentally retarded without a doubt. After presenting their case to the jury, the jury found that Atkins had not satisfactorily proved that he was mentally retarded, thus, leading to reinstatement of the death penalty. The defense appealed the verdict and the Virginia Supreme Court found that the proceedings had been procedurally flawed and, hence, the case was remanded for new proceedings “to determine whether Atkins was mentally retarded “

Finally, Atkins was sentenced to life imprisonment after the new evidence brought forward by Jones Williams attorney. The video brought forward after ten years of silence showed a 16 minutes gap, in an interview by the prosecutors with Jones in anticipation of him testifying against Atkins. It was argued that the prosecutor had coached Jones on what to say and the court agreed with this citing that the suppressed material could have affected the outcome of the case.

From his book, Walker feels that the death penalty should only be awarded when deserved and after extensive consultations. Walker tries to show that when dealing with human life it is prudent to take everything into account and avoid being bias. The Supreme Court, were not afraid to correct itself if it meant that justice would be preserved. With all the rigidity that comes with law, they set a new precedent in accordance to the Eighth Amendment. This may not have impressed many, since the man had indeed committed a murder, but deserved to be given a chance.

People with disability are still human and need to be treated as such. A person with any form of mental incapacity or ailment should be given a certain level of understanding as provided by  the Eighth Amendment. As much as one may be wrong, he may not be able to understand what he or she has done, hence, it is imperative that the person in question has to be assessed to prove their state of mind before any action can be taken against them. There are, of course, those who might try to use the leniency showed to such people to their advantage and thus the courts should deal with such cases sternly to serve as a warning to other likeminded individuals.


The way Walker brings out his arguments is simple and clear. Additionally, his argument is extensively supported by numerous sources. From a critical perspective, there is truly not much to fault in the book unless the reader is acknowledged about the capital punishment and the law in general. The author analyzed the case in an unbiased manner, hence, reached his goal of explaining how race, disability, social issues and the court of public opinion impact on court proceedings.

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