March 01, 2016

Fifth Circuit Vacates Death Sentence for Intellectually Disabled Prisoner

On December 16, 2015, just six months after a major victory at the United States Supreme Court, a team of pro bono attorneys from Jenner & Block secured a life sentence for their client, Kevan Brumfield, after proving that he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty.

Mr. Brumfield was convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 for the murder of an off-duty officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His death sentence was handed down several years prior to the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, which held that people who are intellectually disabled are ineligible for the death penalty. In light of the Atkins decision, Mr. Brumfield appealed his death sentence on the grounds of intellectual disability and asked for an Atkins hearing to determine whether he was, in fact, intellectually disabled, and thus ineligible to be executed. The state court denied his 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.

The federal district court found the Louisiana state court unreasonable in both its application of clearly established federal law and its determination of the facts. 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.” The district court granted Mr. Brumfield an Atkins hearing where significant new evidence was introduced to support his intellectual disability claim. The court then ruled that Mr. Brumfield was intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for execution. On the State’s appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision, holding that the state court’s determination was reasonable and thus the federal court was precluded, under AEDPA, from examining 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 unreasonable in two ways. First, the state court unreasonably held that Mr. Brumfield’s IQ score of 75 “necessarily precluded any possibility that he possessed subaverage intelligence.” Second, given the low “reasonable doubt” threshold for proving intellectual disability in Louisiana, the Supreme Court held that the state court’s rejection of Mr. Brumfield’s request for an Atkins hearing was “unreasonable.” The Court vacated the Fifth Circuit’s decision denying relief and remanded the case for further consideration regarding the merits of Mr. Brumfield’s intellectual disability claim.

In its review of Mr. Brumfield’s claim on remand from the Supreme Court, the Fifth Circuit relied heavily on the on the federal district court’s prior findings. The federal district court, in turn, had used a three-prong test for assessing the application of Atkins in death penalty cases in Louisiana: (1) sub-average IQ test scores, (2) significant impairment of adaptive skills, and (3) evidence that the impairments occurred during the developmental stage.

Under the first prong of the test, the court considered four IQ tests administered over two decades, each indicating that Mr. Brumfield had scored at or below 75, a score that is consistent with an intellectual disability. Furthermore, multiple expert witnesses agreed that Mr. Brumfield’s test scores were sufficient to satisfy the first prong of the intellectual disability test.

The district court found, based on the evidence presented by experts, that Mr. Brumfield had met the second prong of the test by demonstrating significant impairment in the domain of conceptual adaptive skills. Mr. Brumfield was unable to write in a straight line without an aid, took a long time to write one-page letter, and relied on other inmates to write his letters. Additionally, evidence showed that Mr. Brumfield read at around a fourth grade level and that his development generally had stopped between a fourth and sixth grade level.

The final prong of the Atkins test in Louisiana required a showing that intellectual disability was manifest during developmental years, namely prior to the age of 18. The district court found that Brumfield’s poor academic record necessarily showed manifestation of intellectual disability prior to the age of 18.

Thus, based on Atkins and the findings that led the U.S. Supreme Court to issue its remand in this case in June of 2015, the Fifth Circuit upheld the federal district court’s finding of intellectual disability and vacated the death sentence for Mr. Brumfield, resentencing him to life without the possibility of parole.

Thank you to Jenner & Block for their years of dedication to Mr. Brumfield and congratulations on this important victory!