School, IQ Issues Central to Supreme Court Death-Penalty Ruling

By Mark Walsh — June 19, 2015 4 min read
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A U.S. Supreme Court decision on Thursday once again found the justices debating the school records and IQ test scores of a convicted prisoner facing capital punishment.

The educational backgrounds of certain death-row inmates challenging their sentences in court have been a salient issue since the high court ruled in 2002 that the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment of those with intellectual disabilities.

In the new decision, Brumfield v. Cain (Case No. 13-1433), the court ruled 5-4 that a Louisiana death-row inmate deserved a chance to prove in federal court that he was intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for execution.

“An individual who points to evidence that he was at risk of neurological trauma at birth, was diagnosed with a learning disability and placed in special education classes, was committed to mental health facilities and given powerful medication, reads at a 4th grade level, and simply cannot process information, has raised substantial reason to believe that he suffers from adaptive impairments,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority, in reference to the inmate, Kevan Brumfield.

Brumfield and another individual were convicted in the 1993 death of an off-duty Baton Rouge police officer, Betty Smothers, who was escorting a grocery manager to the night depository of a bank. At the time of Brumfield’s conviction, Supreme Court precedents permitted the execution of those with intellectual disabilities.

The high court barred such executions in its 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, but that decision left room for death penalty states to set their own definitions of who was intellectually disabled. Last term, in Hall v. Florida, the court held that the states could not set an IQ score of 70 or below as the rigid cutoff for determining intellectual disability.

The Brumfield case involves whether the Louisiana inmate deserves an opportunity under complex state and federal laws for a “post-Atkins” hearing in federal court, in which he could prove he met Louisiana’s criteria for being intellectually disabled.

Brumfield, now 42, pointed to evidence that had been presented at the sentencing phase of his trial.

Brumfield’s mother testified that her son had been born prematurely at a very low birth weight. She also said that he had been taken out of school in 5th grade and hospitalized due to his behavior. A social worker who had interviewed some of Brumfield’s teachers testified that beginning in 5th grade, the boy had been placed in special education because of a learning disability.

Another expert had testified that Brumfield had a low intellect and a 4th grade reading level as an adult.

“An individual, like Brumfield, who was placed in special education classes at an early age, was suspected of having a learning disability, and can barely read at a 4th grade level, certainly would seem to be deficient in both ‘understanding and use of language’ and ‘learning'—two of the six ‘areas of major life activity’” under Louisiana’s relevant standard, Sotomayor said.

A state court’s inadequate consideration of all the facts allowed Brumfield to overcome a federal statute that makes it more difficult for death-row inmates to pursue “habeas” relief in federal courts, Sotomayor said.

Her opinion was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Elena Kagan.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a harsh dissent that stressed the brutality of Brumfield’s crime and that the inmate has “spent the last 20 years in a ceaseless campaign of review proceedings.”

Thomas appeared to side with experts who found Brumfield’s IQ to be 75 or higher, outside the range of intellectual disability.

The only evidence that Brumfield presented that was “even potentially relevant” to the state’s test for showing deficits in adaptive skills “was evidence of his poor reading skills and behavioral problems in school,” Thomas said.

But an expert had testified that Brumfield had “a normal capacity to learn and acquire information when given the opportunity for repetition,” Thomas said.

“The majority places special weight on Brumfield’s placement in ‘special education’ classes, but the record explains that he was placed in behavioral disorder classes not because he had a low capacity to learn, but because he had a high capacity to make trouble.”

Thomas’s dissent was joined in most part by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

However, those three declined to join a section of the dissent in which Thomas contrasted Brumfield’s life with that of Warrick Dunn, the eldest son of the murder victim, who had helped his family deal with the tragedy, became a star running back at Florida State University, and then had a 12-year career in the National Football League, and launched charitable organizations.

“Brumfield’s argument that his actions were the product of his disadvantaged background is striking in light of the conduct of Corporal Smothers’ children following her murder,” particularly Warrick, Thomas said.

Justice Alito issued a short statement explaining that “the story recounted in that [section] will serve a very beneficial purpose if widely read, but I do not want to suggest that it is essential to the legal analysis in the case.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.