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SCOTUS: State court misapplied Atkins standard for determining intellectual disability

Brumfield v. Cane, USSC No. 13-1433, (June 18, 2015), reversing Brumfield v. Cain, 744 F.3d 918 (5th Cir. 2014); SCOTUSblog page (including links to briefs and commentary); Majority opinion by Sotomayor; dissenting opinion by Thomas (joined in part by Roberts, Scalia and Alito)

Brumfield was convicted of murder and sentenced to death before Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) prohibited the execution of the intellectually disabled. Afterwards, Brumfield, who has an IQ of 75, sought to prove is intellectual disability in state court, but was denied the time and funding to get an expert as well as an evidentiary hearing. In a 5-4 decision, SCOTUS found this an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented under 28 USC §2254(d)(2) and allowed Brumfield to have his Atkins claim considered on the merits in federal court.

Because this is a death-penalty case on habeas review, the Atkins issue doesn’t really apply to Wisconsin practice.  It is interesting to note the holdings, however.  A state may not deny a defendant an Atkins evidentiary hearing (to prove intellectual disability) just because the defendant scored 75 on an IQ test and may have scored higher on a different test. Slip op. 10-11.  Furthermore, contrary to the state court, SCOTUS saw substantial grounds to question Brumfield’s “adaptive functioning” (another prong of an intellectual disability diagnosis) because: he suffered a low birth weight, he was suspected early on of having a learning disability, he had been placed in special ed classes, he had been committed to a mental health facility while a child and placed on drugs, and he now barely reads at a 4th grade level. Slip op. 13-14. The majority concluded:

We do not deny that Brumfield’s crimes were terrible, causing untold pain for the victims and their families . . . The question here is whether Brumfield cleared AEDPA’s procedural hurdles, and was thus entitled to a hearing to show that he so lacked the capacity for self-determination that it would violate the Eighth Amendment to permit the State to impose the “law’s most severe sentence,” Hall, 572 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 7), and take his life as well. That question, and that question alone, we answer in the affirmative. Slip op. at 19.

Why that qualification? Because Thomas wrote a 28-page dissent (the majority was only 19 pages) which eulogized one of the victims and praised her son, who ultimately became a pro football player despite the fact that he lost his mother and had to care for his siblings as a teenager.  “Why couldn’t Brumfield overcome his difficult circumstances like Warrick Dunn did?” Thomas essentially asks. The answer “because Brumfield was intellectually disabled”” doesn’t occur to Thomas. He wants retribution for the victim. Dissent at 1-9. Lawyers, Guns & Money has some “sport” with this line of reasoning. Roberts, Scalia and Alito declined to join that portion of Thomas’s dissent. “I don’t want to suggest that it is essential to the legal analysis in this case,” Alito wrote.

One of the questions presented was whether a state must fund a prisoner’s efforts to develop an Atkins claim. Because the majority held that Brumfield’s claim was developed enough to get a hearing, it didn’t reach that question. The dissent would hold that because Brumfield failed to make a substantial showing of mental retardation, the State was not required to give him funds to make that showing. Dissent at 26.

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