June 01, 2015

Supreme Court Orders Atkins Hearing for Louisiana Death Row Prisoner

On June 18, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Brumfield v. Cain, vacating the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which had denied a Louisiana death row prisoner’s request for a hearing to present evidence that he is intellectually disabled.

Mr. Brumfield was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of an off-duty Baton Rouge police officer in 1993—prior to the Supreme Court holding in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who is intellectually disabled. During the sentencing phase of his trial, Mr. Brumfield’s mother and Dr. Cecile Guin, a social worker, testified that from an early age Mr. Brumfield presented signs of physiological, developmental, and behavioral problems, and he was placed in a mental health facility as a child. Another mental health expert, Dr. John Bolter, submitted a report to the court concluding that Mr. Brumfield has an IQ of 75 and suffers from learning deficiencies.                   

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Atkins in 2002; less than a year later in State v. Williams, the Louisiana Supreme Court attempted to provide guidelines on the application of Atkins in Louisiana death penalty cases. The court outlined three elements that were needed to render a legal finding of intellectual disability: (1) sub-average IQ test scores, (2) significant impairment of adaptive skills, and (3) evidence the impairments occurred during the developmental stage. Louisiana also set a relatively low threshold to receive an Atkins hearing, requiring a defendant to simply supply “sufficient evidence” that raises a “reasonable doubt” regarding his or her intellectual ability. If granted an Atkins hearing, the prisoner will have an opportunity to develop and present additional evidence on the issue of intellectual disability. 

Following the decisions in Atkins and Williams, Mr. Brumfield requested an Atkins hearing, citing the mitigation testimony submitted by his mother, Dr. Guin, and Dr. Bolter to meet the threshold requirement. The state court rejected the request based on findings that: (1) Mr. Brumfield scored at least a 75 on IQ tests; and (2) the existing record did not contain evidence of intellectual disability. Mr. Brumfield appealed that decision to the federal courts.

Federal scrutiny of state court decisions is limited by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). A federal court may grant relief only if the state court’s opinion was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law,” or “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” AEDPA gives strong deference to the factual findings of state courts and strictly limits the circumstances when federal courts may conduct an evidentiary hearing and consider new evidence. 

In Mr. Brumfield’s case, the federal district court found that the state court’s decision was both an unreasonable application of Federal law and based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. It then granted Mr. Brumfield an evidentiary hearing, where his counsel put on significant new evidence to support the claim that he is intellectually disabled. Following this hearing the district court granted relief. The State appealed this decision to the Fifth Circuit, which reversed the district court’s decision. The Fifth Circuit held that the state court’s determinations were reasonable, and the district court was therefore precluded under AEDPA from considering new evidence.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, reversing the decision of the Fifth Circuit. Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor agreed with the district court, finding that the state court’s factual findings were unreasonable in two ways. First, the state court unreasonably held that Mr. Brumfield’s IQ test score of 75 “necessarily precluded any possibility that he possessed subaverage intelligence.” Although Louisiana considers a score of 70 or below to be sub-average, Williams specifically acknowledged that “any IQ test score has a margin of error, and is only a factor” in assessing intellectual disability. The U.S. Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in Hall v. Florida, holding that an IQ score above 70 but within the margin of error cannot result in an automatic finding of no intellectual disability.

Second, the state court was unreasonable for in its determination that the record did not contain sufficient evidence to raise questions about Mr. Brumfield’s adaptive functioning. The state court relied on Dr. Bolter’s testimony indicating that Mr. Brumfield had “antisocial personality” and a “normal capacity to learn and acquire information when given the opportunity for repetition.” Justice Sotomayor noted that these findings did not preclude the possibility of intellectual disability and that additional facts developed at the penalty phase, such as Mr. Brumfield’s fourth grade reading level and difficulty processing information, satisfied the Louisiana standard for an Atkins hearing.

Justice Sotomayor emphasized the importance of the fact that the penalty phase evidence was developed and presented prior to the Court’s decision in Atkins.  At that time, intellectual disability did not exempt an individual from the death penalty and was thought to be of questionable strategic value in mitigation cases, because it could also be seen as an aggravating factor by juries in assessing future dangerousness. Both Atkins and Williams recognized that defense attorneys often made a strategic decision not to present evidence of intellectual disability at the penalty phase. It was therefore unreasonable for the state court to rely on mitigation evidence developed prior to Atkins to provide a full picture of Mr. Brumfield’s intellectual abilities.

Given the low “reasonable doubt” threshold in Louisiana, the Supreme Court held that the state court’s rejection of Mr. Brumfield’s request for an Atkins hearing was “unreasonable” and that Mr. Brumfield was entitled to a federal evidentiary hearing under AEDPA. The Court vacated the Fifth Circuit’s decision and the remanded the case for further consideration of the merits of Mr. Brumfield’s intellectual disability claim.