Louisiana Held Back in Rush to Execute Killer

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Louisiana’s plan to execute a cop killer whom a federal judge found was “mentally retarded” must wait on the results of a new hearing, the divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
     A jury ordered the death penalty for Kevan Brumfield, now 42, in 1995 after finding him guilty of first-degree murder related to the death of Cpl. Betty Smothers, an officer of the police department in Baton Rouge, La., whose son Warrick Dunn later became a professional football star.
     Brumfield initially and 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 heard on the merits Thursday.
     The decision hinges on the court’s finding that the state court rejected Brumfield’s request for an Atkins hearing based on an “unreasonable determination of the facts.”
     “We train our attention on the two underlying factual determinations on which the trial court’s decision was premised-that Brumfield’s IQ score was inconsistent with a diagnosis of intellectual disability and that he had presented no evidence of adaptive impairment,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
     Despite affording the state trial court substantial deference, these justices said that the record “compels us to conclude that both of its critical factual determinations were unreasonable.”
     One of the determinations involved the finding by clinical neuropsychologist John Bolter that Brumfield scored 75 on an IQ test and may have scored higher on another test.
     It accounts for the necessary margin of error to find the reported IQ test of 75 “squarely in the range of potential intellectual disability,” Sotomayor wrote.
     “To conclude, as the state trial court did, that Brumfield’s reported IQ score of 75 somehow demonstrated that he could not possess subaverage intelligence therefore reflected an unreasonable determination of the facts,” she added.
     The court never heard evidence of any higher IQ test score that could render the state court’s determination reasonable, according to the ruling.
     Sotomayor also took issue with the state court’s refusal to grant Brumfield’s request for an Atkins evidentiary hearing based on “its conclusion that the record failed to raise any question as to Brumfield’s ‘impairment … in adaptive skills.'”
     For the majority, evidence of Brumfield’s premature birth and low birth weight, coupled with behavioral and medical problems in his youth, “provided substantial grounds to question Brumfield’s adaptive functioning.”
     “It is critical to remember, however, that in seeking an evidentiary hearing, Brumfield was not obligated to show that he was intellectually disabled, or even that he would likely be able to prove as much,” the ruling states. “Rather, Brumfield needed only to raise a ‘reasonable doubt’ as to his intellectual disability to be entitled to an evidentiary hearing.”
     Sotomayor added: “That these facts were alone sufficient to raise a doubt as to Brumfield’s adaptive impairments is all the more apparent given that Brumfield had not yet had the opportunity to develop the record for the purpose of proving an intellectual disability claim.”
           Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito joined a dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas that attacks the majority for overstepping the limits federal law imposes against granting relief to state prisoners.
     Thomas lost the support of even those colleagues however in a section of the dissent that calls Brumfield’s disadvantage-background argument “striking in light of the conduct of Corporal Smothers’ children following her murder.”
     The dissent concludes with condemnation of the majority for setting aside proceedings in Louisiana courts that afforded Brumfield “full appellate and collateral-review proceedings.”
     “In concluding otherwise, the majority distorts federal law and intrudes upon Louisiana’s sovereign right to enforce its criminal laws and its courts’ judgments,” Thomas wrote, rejoined by the other dissenting justices. “Such willfulness is disheartening.
     “What is perhaps more disheartening than the majority’s disregard for both AEDPA and our precedents is its disregard for the human cost of its decision. It spares not a thought for the 20 years of judicial proceedings that its decision so casually extends. It spares no more than a sentence to describe the crime for which a Louisiana jury sentenced Brumfield to death. It barely spares the two words necessary to identify Brumfield’s victim, Betty Smothers, by name. She and her family – not to mention our legal system – deserve better.”
     Thomas included a black-and-white photo of Smothers in the appendix to his dissent.

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