Federal Court Removes Intellectually Disabled Man from Louisiana Death Row

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has ruled in favor of Kevan Brumfield, upholding the decision of a Louisiana federal district court that he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution. Louisiana’s state courts had initially denied Brumfield resources to investigate evidence of his intellectual disability and then dismissed his case without an evidentiary hearing, finding that he had not presented sufficient evidence to justify further review of the issue. A federal district court then granted Brumfield funds to investigate and develop facts supporting his claim, conducted a hearing, and found him to be intellectually disabled. An earlier ruling by the 5th Circuit had reversed the district court’s decision on procedural grounds, saying that the district court should have deferred to the Louisiana state courts. It did not address the portion of the lower court’s ruling that Brumfield was intellectually disabled. Brumfield’s case was then heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled by a 5-4 vote on June 18, 2015 that the district court had properly granted Brumfield a hearing on his intellectual disability. The Court held that Louisiana had unreasonably determined that Brumfield’s evidence was insufficient to warrant an evidentiary hearing and remanded the case back to the 5th Circuit with directions to rule on the district court’s determination that Brumfield was intellectually disabled. The circuit court issued its ruling on December 16, 2015, stating: “Both the state and Brumfield present plausible views of the evidence, although, on balance, Brumfield’s witnesses were somewhat stronger and presented a slightly more compelling view…Because the State has not demonstrated clear error on the part of the district court, we AFFIRM the ruling of the district court that Brumfield is intellectually disabled and, accordingly, ineligible for execution.” The new finding excludes Brumfield from execution under the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, which found the execution of people with intellectual disabilities unconstitutional.

(M. Lau, “Baton Rouge police Cpl. Betty Smothers’ killer to be spared execution, 5th Circuit panel rules,” The Advocate, December 16, 2015; Brumfield v. Cain, Opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, December 16, 2015.) See Intellectual Disability and U.S. Supreme Court.