NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The Fifth Circuit spared a Louisiana inmate from execution, ruling that Kevan Brumfield's "intellectual disability" makes him ineligible for the death penalty.
The unanimous ruling handed down by the three-judge panel on Wednesday puts to rest years of legal battles that began with the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2002 decision that it is unconstitutional to execute inmates with intellectual disabilities.
A jury ordered the death penalty for Brumfield in 1995 after finding him guilty of first-degree murder related to the death of Cpl. Betty Smothers, an officer with the Baton Rouge Police Department.
Brumfield, now 42, unsuccessfully challenged his conviction on the basis of insanity, but he claimed mental retardation after the Supreme Court prohibited states from executing the mentally impaired with the 2002 case Atkins v. Virginia.
The trial court denied Brumfield an Atkins hearing, but the inmate finally obtained one in 2010 after a victory in federal court.
A federal judge for the Middle District of Louisiana granted Brumfield's petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 2012 on the grounds that he is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for execution.
Though the court enjoined Louisiana from executing Brumfield, the Fifth Circuit reversed last year because it found that the Middle District did not give the state court's determination appropriate deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
After taking up Brumfield's appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Brumfield's Atkins claim be heard on the merits.
"Both the state and Brumfield present plausible views of the evidence, although, on balance, Brumfield's witnesses were somewhat stronger and presented a slightly more compelling view," U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn King wrote in Wednesday's decision.
The Fifth Circuit panel found "no clear error" in the federal judge's 2012 ruling that brought the death penalty off the table when it found Brumfield had a below-average IQ and the intellectual capacity of a sixth grader.
"Because the district court's determination that Brumfield is intellectually disabled is plausible in light of the record as a whole, its determination is not clearly erroneous," King wrote in the 43-page opinion.
King was joined in the decision by U.S. Circuit Judges Edith Clement and Jennifer Elrod.Follow @@eidelagarza
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.