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Justices Order Hearing On Death Row Inmate's Intellectual Disability Claim

The Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana court "unreasonably" found that a condemned man with an IQ of 75 wasn't entitled to a hearing on his mental capabilities.

Posted on June 18, 2015, at 11:45 a.m. ET

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The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a Louisiana judge "unreasonably" denied a death row inmate a hearing to determine if he has an intellectual disability that would prevent him from being executed.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that our "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" prohibits executing those with intellectual disabilities.

Kevan Brumfield pointed to evidence that his IQ is 75, "had a fourth-grade reading level, had been prescribed numerous medications and treated at psychiatric hospitals as a child, had been identified as having a learning disability, and had been placed in special education classes."

At the time of his original trial, those with intellectual disabilities were still permitted to be executed.

Not every death row inmate has a hearing on their mental capabilities. In order to get a hearing on the issue, the condemned inmate has to raise "reasonable doubt" about the person's intellectual capacity. A Louisiana court decided that Brumfield didn't meet the requirements for a hearing to examine his mental capabilities, but the Supreme Court on Thursday called that finding "unreasonable."

"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," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court. "Rather, Brumfield needed only to raise a "reasonable doubt" as to his intellectual disability to be entitled to an evidentiary hearing."

She was joined by the other more liberal justices, as well as Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often is the swing vote on cases involving the death penalty.

Justice Clarence Thomas and three more conservative justices dissented — arguing that the evidence of an intellectual disability is just evidence of behavioral problems.

"The majority places special weight on Brumfield's placement in 'special education' classes," Thomas wrote, "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 also accused other justices of glossing over the heinousness of Brumfield's crime. "Given that the majority devotes a single sentence to a description of the crime for which a Louisiana jury sentenced Brumfield to death, I begin there," he wrote — detailing Brumfield's murder of Louisiana police officer Betty Smothers and the aftermath faced by her son.

Sotomayor addressed the critique in her closing. "We do not deny that Brumfield's crimes were terrible, causing untold pain for the victims and their families," she responded. "But we are called upon today to resolve a different issue — whether Brumfield cleared [federal law'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 allow his execution.

The court on Thursday decided that Brumfield had cleared those hurdles — sending the case back to the lower courts for a hearing on his intellectual disability claim.

Chris Geidner contributed to this report.