Summary of the Case

The Court granted certiorari in Brumfield v. Cain, a death penalty case from Louisiana dealing with intellectual disability. Kevan Brumfield was sentenced to death prior to the Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), which banned the execution of defendants with intellectual disabilities. After that ruling, Brumfield filed a claim of intellectual disability in state court. The court denied him a hearing because the trial transcript showed no evidence of his disability. A federal district court found that the state court had “mistakenly – and unreasonably– considered the record from Petitioner’s pre-Atkins penalty phase as determinative of Petitioner’s mental retardation claim under Atkins,” granted Brumfield a hearing, and found him to be intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from execution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the federal district court’s decision. Brumfield’s attorneys said, “As a result of this decision, the compelling evidence presented to the district court will be ignored, and a person who was found to be mentally retarded will be executed.” The Supreme Court will determine whether Brumfield should have been granted a hearing on his claim of intellectual disability.


On June 18, 2015, the Court announced its decision in Brumfield v. Cain. The Court held that the federal district court was entitled to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Kevan Brumfield has intellectual disability and is therefore ineligible for execution. It reversed a ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that would have deferred to a Lousiana state court decision permitting Brumfield to be executed without a hearing on his claim of intellectual disability. After an extensive evidentiary hearing, the district court held that Brumfield was intellectually disabled. By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana had unreasonably determined the facts when it decided that Brumfield had not presented sufficient evidence of intellectual and adaptive impairments to warrant an evidentiary hearing in state court. Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor said, “After Atkins was decided, petitioner, a Louisiana death-row inmate, requested an opportunity to prove he was intellectually disabled in state court. Without affording him an evidentiary hearing or granting him time or funding to secure expert evidence, the state court rejected petitioner’s claim. That decision, we hold, was ‘based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.’ Petitioner was therefore entitled to have his Atkins claim considered on the merits in federal court.” The case returns to the Fifth Circuit for consideration of whether the district court’s findings are supported by the record.

UPDATE: On Dec. 16, 2015, the Fifth Circuit, on remand, held that the District Court’s original ruling that Brumfield was intellectually disabled was not clearly erroneous and hence should be upheld, thereby rendering him ineligible for execution. (Brumfield v. Cain, No. 12-30256 (5th Cir., Dec. 16, 2015)).

Overview of the Case

Kevan Brumfield Suffers From Intellectual Disability (formerly known as Mental Retardation).

After an extensive, seven day hearing with testimony from numerous psychologists, a U.S. District Court judge found that Kevan Brumfield suffers from intellectual disability. A person is intellectually disabled if he has (1) subaverage intelligence (generally an IQ score of 75 or below); (2) significant impairment in adaptive functioning; and (3) the disability manifested before the age of 18. Mr. Brumfield has all three.

All of the experts who testified (for both the State and the defense) agreed that Mr. Brumfield’s IQ scores of 70, 70, 72 and 75 demonstrate that he has an intelligence level that is consistent with intellectual disability.

The district court heard substantial evidence demonstrating Mr. Brumfield’s deficiencies in adaptive functioning. The evidence showed, for instance, that Mr. Brumfield has severely limited ability to write. He takes an inordinate amount of time, and needs assistance, to write a simple letter. He also lacks motor skills, unable to write in a straight line without using a piece of cardboard to guide him. Mr. Brumfield spent much of his childhood in special education classes. He was not able to understand the simple rules of childhood games or process basic information. By the time he dropped out in the ninth grade, he had been placed in 14-15 different schools and several mental health facilities. Despite having been in special education, all of his academic abilities reached a plateau, for the rest of his life, around the fourth or fifth grade—which is characteristic of persons with intellectual disability. He still has at best a fourth grade reading level.

The State’s experts did not contest that Mr. Brumfield’s impairments manifested before the age of 18. When Mr. Brumfield was born, he weighed 3.5 pounds and suffered from fetal stress. He was born with slower responses than normal babies, and experienced severe abuse, neglect, and poverty during his upbringing—all risk factors for intellectual disability. He also has several blood relatives who similarly suffer from intellectual disability.

The State’s experts acknowledged Mr. Brumfield’s substantial impairments but argued that he is not intellectually disabled because he possessed some strengths. The district court judge found that the State’s experts were unreliable and lacked credibility. The judge found that one of the State’s experts was unreliable because he had never even heard of the relevant and leading diagnostic standards developed by the American Association of Mental Retardation (now American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) at the time he examined Mr. Brumfield and had “no formal training in administering psychological testing.” The judge found that the State’s other expert failed to follow the standard of care for assessing intellectual disability.

The State’s main argument was that Mr. Brumfield was never diagnosed with intellectual disability as a child. The district judge rejected that argument. He relied upon testimony from an expert who explained, based on her personal experience, that Mr. Brumfield’s school system, in East Baton Rouge Parish, deliberately avoided diagnosing African American students, like Mr. Brumfield, with intellectual disability, “in favor of diagnosing him with more politically palatable ailments, like conduct disorders and behavioral problems.” The court explained:

“during Brumfield’s school years in the late 1970s, African–Americans males were bring disproportionately diagnosed with mental retardation. School officials, psychologists, and appraisal teams were accordingly cautious not to over-represent black males as being mentally retarded and were instead urged to consider other alternatives that would avoid placing the mental retardation label on them. [Indeed, the] East Baton Rouge Parish schools, which Brumfield attended, had received this admonition.”

If Mr. Brumfield Is Intellectually Disabled, Why Is He Still Facing Execution?

Mr. Brumfield faces execution because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) requires that the evidence heard by the district court—as well as its finding that Mr. Brumfield is intellectually disabled—be disregarded out of deference to the state court in Louisiana, where Mr. Brumfield was originally convicted and sentenced to death.

First, What Happened In State Court?

Mr. Brumfield was convicted and sentenced to death before the Supreme Court had decided its landmark decision in Atkins v. Virginia, which first held that it is unconstitutional to execute intellectually disabled (then referred to as “mentally retarded”) persons. For that reason, Mr. Brumfield never brought up his intellectual disability at his trial. After Atkins was decided, however, Mr. Brumfield brought a petition in state court arguing that he must be spared execution because he is intellectually disabled. His pro bono lawyer pointed to several facts presented at his trial that indicated he might be intellectually disabled—including evidence that he had an IQ score of 75, had been placed in special education, had a fourth grade reading level, and was born with a low birth weight. His lawyer asked the court to provide him with funding for an expert so that Mr. Brumfield could be evaluated for intellectual disability and asked for a hearing to prove his disability. The state court rejected Brumfield’s claim that he was intellectually disabled without providing him with any funding or a hearing, reasoning that the evidence from Mr. Brumfield’s pre-Atkins trial did not show that he was intellectually disabled.

Second, What Happened In Federal Court?

It was after the state court denied him any funding or a hearing that Mr. Brumfield filed a petition in federal court. The federal district court held that the state court’s determination was not entitled to any deference for two reasons. First, it acted unreasonably by relying solely on Mr. Brumfield’s trial record to determine whether he is intellectually disabled, when that trial record was created prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins and Mr. Brumfield had thus never attempted to prove that he was intellectually disabled at trial. Second, the state court violated Supreme Court precedent by denying Mr. Brumfield funding to prove his intellectual disability.

In light of those conclusions, the district court provided Mr. Brumfield funding and his first opportunity to prove his intellectual disability at a hearing. That led to the wealth of evidence above and a comprehensive decision finding that that Mr. Brumfield is intellectually disabled.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit did not overturn the district court’s finding that Mr. Brumfield was intellectually disabled—that finding has gone undisturbed. Instead, it ruled that under AEDPA, the district court should have never provided Mr. Brumfield with a hearing in the first place, out of deference to the state court’s decision.

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The Issue Before The Supreme Court:

The issue before the Supreme Court is whether the evidence heard by the district court should be disregarded because the district court should never have provided Mr. Brumfield with a hearing out of deference to the state court. Mr. Brumfield asks the Supreme Court to reverse the Fifth Circuit’s decision because the state court acted unreasonably. In particular, he argues that the state court’s determination that he was not intellectually disabled was unreasonable because it was based on his trial record, which took place prior to Atkins and at which he never attempted to prove that he was intellectually disabled. He also argues that the state court’s failure to provide expert funding for a proper ID assessment runs afoul of clearly established Supreme Court precedent.

Underlying Facts Of The Case:

In January 1993, Baton Rouge Police Officer Betty Smothers was accompanying a grocery store manager to a bank late at night to make the store’s deposits. When the car pulled up to the night drop, two men began firing weapons, killing Officer Smothers and seriously injuring the store manager. Mr. Brumfield was arrested for the crime and, after 20 hours of interrogation without food or sleep, Mr. Brumfield gave a confession, which was the State’s primary evidence at trial. Mr. Brumfield has always maintained that he was coerced into giving a false confession. The Supreme Court previously recognized in Atkins itself that the risk of false confessions is greater in cases involving intellectual disability. Mr. Brumfield’s codefendant, Henry Broadway, was also sentenced to death.