December 01, 2016

Fifth Circuit Vacates Death Sentence for Intellectually Disabled Prisoner

On December 16, 2015, 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. Nearly a decade later, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute a person who is intellectually disabled. Mr. Brumfield subsequently filed a petition for post-conviction relief based on Atkins and requested a hearing so that he could submit evidence of his intellectual disability. This petition, and the request for a hearing, were denied by the Louisiana state court.

On appeal, a federal district court found the state court unreasonable, granted Mr. Brumfield an Atkins hearing, and ruled that he was intellectually disabled and ineligible for execution. A series of reversals on appeal followed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that the district court improperly granted the Atkins hearing and held that Mr. Brumfield was not intellectually disabled based solely on the limited evidence that had been presented at his trial. After briefing and argument from Jenner & Block volunteer attorneys, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed again, holding that it was proper for the district court to have held the Atkins hearing and instructing the Fifth Circuit to review Mr. Brumfield’s claim based on the evidence developed at that hearing.

Jenner & Block continued its representation of Mr. Brumfield on remand. This time the Fifth Circuit considered evidence from the Atkins hearing. It 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. In the summer of 2016, the State decided not to seek rehearing, finalizing the life sentence for Mr. Brumfield.