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SCOTUS hears mental disability claim of convicted killer

What factors define an intellectual disability and when should those determinations be made?
People wait in line outside the Supreme Court in Washington on March 23, 2015.
People wait in line outside the Supreme Court in Washington on March 23, 2015.

In the 13 years since the Supreme Court ruled that convicted murderers with mental disabilities should be exempt from capital punishment, states have continued to struggle with ways to apply those standards to inmates serving time on death row. The issue at the heart of a case brought before the high court Monday asks (1) what factors define an intellectual disability and (2) when should those determinations be made?

The case before the Supreme Court Monday involved Louisiana inmate Kevan Brumfield, who was serving out his death sentence when the high court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia found that executing a person with mental disabilities violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, leaving determinations of mental capacity up to the states.

Brumfield was convicted for the 1993 murder of off-duty police Cpl. Betty Smothers, who worked a side-job as a security guard. Shortly after midnight that January, Smothers was driving a Baton Rouge grocery-store manager to a bank to make a deposit when two gunmen -- including Brumfield -- opened fire, killing Smothers and seriously injuring the store manager.

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In 1995, Brumfield was convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly firing the bullets that killed Smothers. Henri Broadway of Baton Rouge was later convicted and sentenced to death row, accused of firing the bullets that wounded the store manager.

At no point during Brumfield’s trial or sentencing proceeding did his legal team argue directly that Brumfield was mentally disabled. But in light of the Atkins decision, Brumfield's attorneys later argued that their client deserved an opportunity to bring evidence of his intellectual disabilities before the court, and that the state should cover the cost of holding a separate hearing on the matter.

But the state court rejected Brumfield’s mental disability claim, finding that evidence presented at the sentencing phase -- including testimony of Brumfield’s history of childhood abuse -- was enough to determine that he was not mentally disabled. The state court denied him both a hearing and state funds to pursue the claim.

U.S. District Judge James Brady later granted Brumfield a hearing and federal funding for his disability claim, ruling that the state court acted irresponsibly by relying solely on evidence that was presented prior to 2002. After hearing evidence and expert testimony, Brady ruled that Brumfield was indeed intellectually disabled and unfit to face execution.

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On appeal, the 5th Circuit Court overturned Brady's ruling, setting the stage for Monday's showdown.

“The only court to provide Mr. Brumfield with a hearing found that he is intellectually disabled, and unless this court reverses the 5th Circuit’s erroneous ruling, an intellectually disabled person will be executed,” Brumfield's attorney, Michael DeSanctis, said in his oral argument Monday.

Brumfield’s case taps into the grey area that states are now grappling with: How can death penalty states implement adequate procedures to diagnose a person's mental disability? 

The facts in the case are complicated. In it's ruling, the 5th Circuit's three-judge panel said the hearing on Brumfield's mental disability claim was unnecessary -- that the state had enough evidence to consider multiple prongs of Louisiana's test determining a disability, and the court didn't need a separate hearing on the matter. 

Gary Clements of the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana said the Brumfield case is not likely to have the same sweeping impact seen in other Supreme Court decisions addressing how states assess mental disabilities. Last May, the high court rejected states using a single, restrictive threshold -- in this case, a specific IQ -- as the sole variable to determine an inmate’s intellectual capability. If anything, Brumfield's case is a test of how states apply the Atkins standards.

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“It’s sort of the evolution of the court of looking at the various shades of what could happen in the Atkins determination,” Clements said. “It’s much more nuanced; it’s not cut and dry.”

Prosecutors across the country have raised concerns about inmates abusing the Atkins decision. “If you make the argument that in every one of these cases where mental retardation was not raised as an issue, it opens the floodgates for every pre-Atkins case to have to be reexamined, to have to be given a hearing,” Retired East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Prem Burns said before the justices Monday.

But in cases determining a person's life or death, Clements said working toward understanding mental illness and intellectual disabilities could go a long way in understanding crime. “The purpose of the death penalty is to execute the worst of the worst. And if your definition of the worst includes people who are not morally responsible because their brain prevents them from being [morally responsible] ... it becomes a major issue,” Clements said.