Supreme Court hears arguments on determining mental incapacity for capital punishment

Supreme Court hears arguments on determining mental incapacity for capital punishment

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] Monday over how to apply the court’s 2002 decision Atkins v. Virginia [Oyez Project summary], which decided that capital punishment for mentally handicapped individuals was considered cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. In Brumfield v. Cain [SCOTUSblog docket] the court will decide whether [Oyez Project summary] a state court’s decision to deny an Atkins claim, when the defendant did not have the opportunity or funds to develop the claim, was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. The case involves defendant Kevan Brumfield who was convicted of the murder of a Louisiana police officer and sentenced to death in 1995. After the Atkins decision in 2002, Brumfield filed for post-conviction relief on the grounds that he was mentally handicapped. He also requested funding to help develop his claim. The Louisiana state court found that he was not entitled to an Atkins hearing based on the initial evidence he was able to present. Brumfield filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court and argued that the state failed to give him a full Atkins hearing. A federal magistrate found that additional evidence presented after Brumfield acquired funding showed that he could be found mentally handicapped and therefore did not receive the full Atkins hearing he was entitled to. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] reversed.

The court’s decision in Atkins has led to a substantial amount of post-conviction relief filings from those believing themselves to be mentally handicapped and thus unfit for capital punishment. The court in Atkins stated that it would leave the question of how to determine mental incapacity up to the states. However, it is believed [SCOTUSblog op-ed] if this new Louisiana case is typical, the court will have no end of difficulty reviewing the adequacy and workability of what each state does about those issues. Additionally, it may be a problem in cases such as this to have the Supreme Court deal with the shear volume and age of such records, adding to the difficulty of reviewing them.