Supreme Court takes up death penalty case

Photo of seated statue in front of US Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court granted certiorari on an appeal from a death-row inmate December 5, in a case with significant implications for the due process rights of people with intellectual disabilities in capital punishment cases.

The case, Brumfield v. Cain, has a long and convoluted procedural history.

A Louisiana jury convicted Kevan Brumfield in 1996 for the murder of Betty Smothers, an off-duty Baton Rouge security officer.

In 2002, the Supreme Court, in Atkins v. Virginia, ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment categorically excluded people with intellectual disabilities from eligibility for the death penalty.

Subsequently, Brumfield sought to have his case reopened. A state court denied him an opportunity to present evidence of his intellectual disabilities, as did the Louisiana Supreme Court.

In 2004, Brumfield sought habeas corpus relief in federal court. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, federal courts are generally not allowed to review state capital punishment cases on the merits, as opposed to procedural irregularities, except in limited exceptions.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana found that one of these exceptions applied, namely when a state court proceeding “results in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.”

Accordingly, the District Court allowed for a seven-day trial, where evidence was presented demonstrating that Brumfield has been measured to have an IQ as low as 72, along with significant deficiencies in his adaptive skills. In light of this evidence, the District Court found Brumfield to be ineligible for the death penalty.

In February 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed, finding that the District Court could not review the case under the AEDPA.

In coming to its conclusion, the 5th Circuit found that Brumfield had already had the opportunity to present evidence of his mental disability, noting that Brumfield presented some evidence of his disabilities in the original jury trial, as a mitigating factor to reduce his sentence.

In its writ for petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, Brumfield’s attorneys argued that since the evidence was presented prior to the Atkins decision, it was inapplicable and therefore the District Court had the authority to review the state court decision.

“It was error to determine that Petitioner was not mentally retarded simply because he ‘hadn’t carried his burden placing the claim of mental retardation at issue,’ or had not demonstrated a deficiency in adaptive skills at the penalty phase of his trial,” the attorneys argued. “There was no reason for Petitioner to try to meet the clinical standard of mental retardation at his penalty phase, which involves a completely different factual determination.”

In addition, the attorneys argued that the 5th Circuit, by denying Brumfield an opportunity to present evidence of his intellectual disabilities in light of the Atkins decision, denied him his “right to be heard,” citing a range of previous Supreme Court cases.

The case is expected to be heard in March.