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Friday, June 19, 2015

U.S. Supreme Court backs death row inmate over intellectual disability claim


WASHINGTON - A divided U.S. Supreme Court gave a convicted cop killer on Louisiana's death row a chance to avert execution, ruling on Thursday that the man was eligible for a hearing on whether he is intellectually disabled.

The court, in a 5-4 decision, threw out a 2014 appeals court ruling that barred Kevan Brumfield from asking for the special hearing in which a lower court judge subsequently found he was intellectually disabled.

Brumfield, convicted in 1995 of murdering off-duty Baton Rouge police officer Betty Smothers during an attempted bank robbery, will remain on death row for now. The appeals court has yet to decide if the judge who held the hearing was correct to find that Brumfield was ineligible for the death penalty.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that intellectually disabled defendants are not eligible for the death penalty. Brumfield's lawyers point to evidence showing that, among other things, he had a fourth-grade reading level and needed assistance to function normally.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether a federal district court judge had the legal authority to hold a special hearing on Brumfield's intellectual capacity. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the court, said the judge was correct to hold the hearing.

The court's four liberals were joined in the majority by conservative Anthony Kennedy. Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the four conservative justices who dissented, said the court should have deferred to the state courts.

Thomas also criticized Sotomayor for failing to describe the crime in detail in the majority opinion. Thomas included a photo of Smothers in his opinion and arranged for the court to post video of Brumfield's confession on its website.

A federal law limits when federal courts can scrutinize state court judgments like the one in this case in which some evidence was presented in a Louisiana court that the state says indicates Brumfield is not, in fact, intellectually disabled.

Sotomayor, describing the state court's findings, said "both of its critical factual determinations were unreasonable," justifying the intervention of a federal judge.

In 2012, the federal judge in Louisiana overseeing the case found Brumfield intellectually disabled and said he should not be executed.

Last year, the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the hearing should not have been held, noting evidence in the state court proceedings indicating Brumfield was not intellectually disabled.

The Supreme Court threw out that decision. The appeals court will now have to review directly the question of whether Brumfield is eligible for the death penalty.

The case is Brumfield v. Cain, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-1433.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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