Intellectual Disability (ID) and the death penalty

Brumfield v. Cain, 2015 WL 9213235 (5th Cir. 2015)

Defendant Brumfield found intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, under the standards set out by the Supreme Court in Atkins and Brumfield

Background: Kevan Brumfield was convicted of first-degree murder in 1995 and sentenced to death. After exhausting his state court remedies, Brumfield filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, arguing that he was intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). The District Court held that the state courts had erred by failing to hold an Atkins hearing and granted Brumfield a writ of habeas corpus after holding such a hearing. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed without reaching the merits of the Atkins claim, holding that Brumfield had not satisfied the procedural requirements for habeas relief. The Supreme Court of the United States reversed, finding that he did meet the requirements, and remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit to ascertain whether the District Court’s determination that Brumfield was intellectually disabled was clear error.

Holdings: On remand, the Fifth Circuit held that the District Court’s determination was not clearly erroneous because it was “plausible in light of the record as a whole.” Although the State argued that prior assessments placed Brumfield consistently in the 70- 85 range,3 the Fifth Circuit noted that “no actual IQ scores…were reported anywhere in Brumfield’s records” and that tests provided only “descriptions of the ranges into which Brumfield’s scores fell”, and every expert witness before the district court “agreed that Brumfield’s scores satisfied the first prong of the intellectual disability test.” Additionally, the District Court found that Brumfield had significant conceptual limitations and “carefully explained its reasoning, identified the specific evidence it relied upon, and specifically credited the testimony of certain experts.” Where the court’s reasoning was so careful and its conclusions not implausible—even if it rejected the State’s equally coherent and plausible story—the Fifth Circuit refused to disturb or second-guess its findings. Although Brumfield was not formally diagnosed as intellectually disabled until after age 18, the district court found that the evidence produced showed this failure to diagnose was related to incentives in the school system not to identify students as intellectually disabled. Again, the district court pointed to specific evidence—Brumfield’s poor academic record, below grade reading comprehension, and etiological factors (e.g., low birth weight, family history of intellectual disability). The Fifth Circuit noted that these factors “certainly bolster[ed] the court’s conclusion that Brumfield’s intellectual disability manifested” before 18.

Found in Found in DMHL Volume 34, Issue 4