Supreme Court expands due process rights for death row inmates with disabilities

prison cell bars, African American man's hands reach out through the bars
Due Process Rights Expanded

In a split 5-4 decision [PDF], the Supreme Court ruled June 18 that the state of Louisiana violated federal law when it refused to provide a death row inmate a hearing to present evidence of his intellectual disabilities.

When the Supreme Court ruled in 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, that the execution of people with intellectual disabilities constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, it left the states substantial leeway to determine who falls under this category.

The latest decision marks the second straight year the Supreme Court has narrowed the state’s discretion. In 2014, it struck down Florida’s strict 70 IQ cutoff, on the basis that an evaluation of a person’s disability must, in addition to IQ testing, include an analysis of the person’s “deficits in adaptive functioning (the inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances).”

Kevan Brumfield was convicted in 1996 of murdering a Baton Rouge security officer, six years prior to the Atkins decision.

The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected Brumfield’s request for a new hearing on his death penalty eligibility, finding that his 75 IQ was “inconsistent with a diagnosis of intellectual disability” or an “impairment…in adaptive skills.”

The U.S. District Court for the District of Louisiana overturned the decision. The District Court relied on the federal Anti-terrorism and Death Penalty Act of 1996, as opposed to strictly the Eighth Amendment, which allows federal courts to overturn state death penalty decisions, where, among other reasons, “the results…was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence present in the State court proceeding.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed and the Supreme Court granted review.

Justice Sotomayor, writing for a five-member majority, agreed with the finding of the District Court.

In regard to the state court’s ruling that a 75 IQ did not raise an issue of fact as to Brumfield’s intellectual disabilities, the Supreme Court reiterated last year’s holding that IQ is not determinative in itself of disability, and moreover should not be viewed as a precise calculation.

As to the state court’s ruling that Brumfield’s attorneys did not introduce evidence of impairment in his adaptive functioning, the Supreme Court pointed to evidence that he was enrolled in special education classes in grade school, read at a fourth grade reading level, and was prescribed numerous medications and had been treated at psychiatric hospitals.

Of particular importance, the Supreme Court believed that the state court failed to prove the appropriate standard, even under Louisiana law, when it analyzed Brumfield’s appeal.

“It is critical to remember, however, that in seeking an evidentiary hearing, Brumfield was not required to show he was intellectually disabled, or even that he would be likely to be able to prove as much,” the Supreme Court stated. “Rather, Brumfield need only to raise a “reasonable doubt” as to his intellectual disability to be entitled to an evidentiary hearing.

Justice Sotomayor’s decision was joined by the court’s three other more liberal justices and Justice Kennedy, the court’s swing justice and author of the Atkins decision.

Justice Thomas, wrote a scathing dissent, joined in part by the court’s three other more conservative justices, criticizing the majority for not deferring to the state’s judgment.