"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

US: Justices Hear Arguments on Intellectual Disability in Death Penalty Case

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments in a death penalty case and issued decisions on the monitoring of sex offenders and on the significance of a lawyer’s brief absence from a criminal trial.

Monday’s arguments, in Brumfield v. Cain, No. 13-1433, concerned Kevan Brumfield, a Louisiana man who was sentenced to death in 1995 for killing a Baton Rouge police officer. Seven years later, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court barred the execution of the intellectually disabled.

Mr. Brumfield sought to be spared on that ground, but was denied a hearing. A state judge reasoned that the evidence submitted at Mr. Brumfield’s trial was sufficient to resolve the issue against him even though he had not argued that his intellectual disability was a reason to bar his execution.

A federal trial judge disagreed. After a seven-day hearing, the judge concluded that Mr. Brumfeld’s I.Q. and limited abilities to perform basic functions proved that he was disabled. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, reversed, ruling that the state court had been entitled to rely on the trial-court record.

During Monday’s arguments, several justices seemed inclined to rule in Mr. Brumfield’s favor, but on narrow grounds that would give rise to no larger precedent.

“I think you’re making a strong argument that is purely a factual argument about this case,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. told Mr. Brumfield’s lawyer, Michael B. DeSanctis. But the case did not require the court to consider “categorical rule” about when hearings must be held, Justice Alito said.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. seemed to agree that the issue before the court boiled down to “a lot of discussion on the evidence at issue in this particular case.”

“What is the broader significance of that discussion here?” he asked, suggesting that the answer was none.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer told Premila Burns, a lawyer for the state, that he was of mixed minds.

“If I had to decide at this moment whether there is enough evidence for you to win on the point is he intellectually disabled, I would say you win,” Justice Breyer said. “If I have to decide whether or not he presented enough evidence to get a hearing, I would say you lose.”

Source: The New York Times, March 30, 2015

Louisiana death row case confounds US supreme court over mental disability

Justices seem confused by what they are to decide in case of death row inmate Kevan Brumfield – and Justice Scalia admits he will never read entire record

The US supreme court heard arguments about the fate and mental condition of death row inmate Kevan Brumfield on Monday, in a case that asks the nine justices to decide whether a man deemed disabled by one court can be killed out of deference to the decision of another.

But the justices struggled even to determine the facts of what happened in a murder trial 20 years ago, frequently interrupting lawyers and losing patience with both sides’ inability to present a clear account of how Louisiana reviews mental disability.

Justice Antonin Scalia confessed he had not read the massive, 20-volume record of the case in its entirety, and doubted any of his colleagues would manage it either.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito asked whether the court was trying to solve a constitutional question – are states obliged to grant mental disability hearings for questionable cases? – or whether it had taken on an isolated and almost impenetrable case.

Brumfield was sentenced to death in 1995 for the killing of an off-duty Baton Rouge police officer, Betty Smothers, seven years before the supreme court ruled that the execution of a mentally disabled person was unconstitutional.

Because mental disability was no impediment to execution before 2002, Brumfield did not argue he should be spared because of his mental condition in his original sentencing hearing.

After the supreme court’s decision, Brumfield asked a Louisiana court for a hearing to present evidence of a disability, but a judge refused on the grounds that evidence from the original trial was sufficient to settle his case.

When his case reached a federal court, a new judge decided Louisiana’s experts were unreliable and granted the hearing. After seven days of expert testimony, based on interviews with former teachers, coaches and friends and the assessment of psychologists, the judge agreed that Brumfield met the requirements to be considered mentally disabled.

Louisiana fought back on procedural grounds, and won in the fifth circuit, which ruled that the state was within its rights to use only the trial record in considering Brumfield’s abilities – and that the federal court should have deferred to the state, according to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

In oral arguments on Monday, the supreme court justices debated not whether Brumfield is mentally disabled but whether Louisiana had acted reasonably in denying Brumfield a hearing to argue a disability.

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Source: The Guardian, March 31, 2015

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