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Joseph Ernest ATKINS





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: December 31, 1969 / October 27, 1985
Date of birth: June 1947
Victims profile: His brother, 23 / His adoptive father, 75, and a neighbor girl, 13
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: North Charleston, South Carolina, USA
Status: Executed by lethal injection in South Carolina on January 23, 1999

United States Court of Appeals
for the Fourth Circuit

clemency petition

Joe Atkins was convicted of the 1985 murders of his father Benjamin Atkins, 75, and a 13-year-old neighbor girl, Karen Patterson, 5 years after being paroled for murdering his brother. 

Atkins, who lived with his father, was angry with his next-door neighbors, according to trial testimony. 

He got drunk and broke into their house armed with a machete, a shotgun and a revolver. 

He shot the girl with the 12-gauge, sawed-off shotgun as she slept. Then he chased her mother back to the Atkins' house, where he shot his father, who had convinced parole officials to release his son from prison 5 years earlier. 

Fifteen years prior to Karen's murder, Atkins had served 10 years of a life sentence for killing his 23-year-old brother, Charles. 

Although Atkins' attorneys claimed that he was drunk during the attack and didn't know what he was doing, prosecutors said Atkins knew enough to cut the telephone lines to his neighbors' house before breaking in and to flee when a county police officer arrived.


Joseph Atkins 99-01-22, South Carolina

In Columbia, a man was executed by injection Friday for shooting to death his adoptive father and a 13-year-old neighbor while on parole for killing his brother.

Joseph Atkins, 51, was the 6th inmate executed in the past 7 weeks in South Carolina. Atkins offered no final statement, and no relatives attended.

His lawyers suggested Atkins, a veteran, was having a flashback to the Vietnam War during the 1985 killings in North Charleston, but his clemency plea was denied by Gov. Jim Hodges.

Atkins, who lived with his father, was angry with his next-door neighbors, according to trial testimony. He got drunk and broke into their house armed with a machete, a shotgun and a revolver.

He shot Karen Patterson with the sawed-off shotgun while she was in bed. Then he chased her mother back to his house where he shot Benjamin Frank Atkins, 75.

5 years earlier, the older Atkins had convinced parole officials to release his son from prison. Atkins served 10 years of a life sentence for killing his 23-year-old brother, Charles.

Atkins becomes the 2nd condemned inmate in South Carolina to be put to death this year, and the 22nd overall since the state resumed executions in 1985.

(sources: Associated Press and Rick Halperin)


USA (South Carolina) Joseph (Joe) Ernest ATKINS, aged 51

Joseph Ernest Atkins is scheduled to be executed in South Carolina on 22 January 1999. He was sentenced to death for the murder of his adoptive father and a young girl in his home town of North Charleston in 1985.

Joe Atkins was exposed to violence from an early age. The unwanted child of a prostitute, he was adopted by B.F. Atkins and Gladys Atkins. He was subjected to frequent beatings and verbal tirades by his adoptive father who would insult him with racist epithets because of his dark skin (his race is unknown, possibly partly African American).

Joe Atkins was also often attacked by his older half-brother, Charles. He required surgery after one such assault in which Charles repeatedly knifed him in the stomach. On three occasions Charles split Joe's head open by hitting him with a rifle butt, a pool cue and a bottle.

Joe Atkins also witnessed repeated violence, including rape, by his father against Gladys. Joe Atkins believed that this brutality against his adoptive mother, which included having her head hit against walls and floors, caused the brain tumour that killed her when he was 15.

Joe Atkins was called up to fight in the war in Vietnam when he was about 21. He was involved in fighting on the border with Cambodia and Laos, where he reportedly witnessed extreme violence, including seeing people killed and mutilated, and hearing fellow soldiers who had been captured being tortured to death. On his return home in October 1969, he was awarded a Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal and the National Defense Ribbon.

Three months later, on 31 December 1969, Joe Atkins killed his half-brother Charles after the latter had violently attacked him after the two had been drinking. Given the circumstances, his defence lawyer and the prosecutor agreed that a manslaughter plea was appropriate.

However, due to poor defence advice, the plea collapsed in court when Atkins unwittingly led the judge to believe that a self-defence plea was possible. The trial proceeded, but with inadequate defence counsel Atkins was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. The trial lasted a day.

Joe Atkins was paroled in 1980. With a criminal record, and possible Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his Vietnam experience, he struggled to make a new life, but became alcoholic.

After a night of drinking on 27 October 1985, he reportedly dressed in military fatigues, armed himself with a machete and shotgun and engaged in other behaviour possibly indicative of a PTSD flashback, and killed his adoptive father and the 13-year-old daughter of his neighbours.

At his trial in 1986, the only aggravating factor making his crime capital was the fact that he had a previous murder conviction. Without this, or if he had been convicted of manslaughter in 1970, he would not have been eligible for the death penalty.

His 1986 defence lawyers, who had no experience of a capital case in South Carolina, did not raise the possibility of a verdict of "guilty but mentally ill" (where, because of mental disease or defect, a person lacks the capacity to abide by the law). It appears that the lawyers were either unaware of the 1984 law allowing for this verdict, or that Joe Atkins was a suitable case for it.

Joe Atkins's subsequent death sentence was overturned on a technicality, but in 1988 he was resentenced to death by a jury who was not told the full range of mitigating evidence. His lawyers failed to fully investigate his background. Expert witnesses now admit that their original diagnoses were faulty because they were not in possession of all the facts about his upbringing or the effects of his war experience.

In South Carolina the Governor has the power to grant clemency. The last person executed in the state was Andy Lavern Smith on 18 December 1998. He was the 500th prisoner to be put to death in the USA since executions resumed in 1977.



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