Supreme Court Permits New Hearing for Mentally Disabled Inmate

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday issued several decisions in criminal cases, including ones on the death penalty, testimony from children and jury selection.

DEATH PENALTY In a 5-to-4 decision, the court ruled that a death row inmate in Louisiana was entitled to a hearing to determine whether he is intellectually disabled, and so may not be executed.

The case, Brumfield v. Cain, No. 13-1433, concerned Kevan Brumfield, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for killing Betty Smothers, 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.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority on Thursday, said that Mr. Brumfield’s I.Q., of 75, and his difficulties with learning and performing ordinary tasks were enough to raise reasonable doubts about his intellectual capacity. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion.

Justice Clarence Thomas filed an impassioned dissent that set out in detail the horror of the crime and its devastating impact on Ms. Smothers’s family. He took the unusual steps of posting Mr. Brumfield’s videotaped confession on the Supreme Court’s website and of including a photograph of Ms. Smothers in an appendix to his opinion.

Justice Thomas accused the majority of disregarding “the human cost of its decision.”

“It spares not a thought for the 20 years of judicial proceedings that its decision so casually extends,” he wrote. “It spares no more than a sentence to describe the crime for which a Louisiana jury sentenced Brumfield to death. It barely spares the two words necessary to identify Brumfield’s victim, Betty Smothers, by name. She and her family — not to mention our legal system — deserve better.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined most of Justice Thomas’s dissent. But they did not join a portion discussing Warrick Dunn, Ms. Smothers’s eldest son, who became a football star.

Mr. Dunn’s story “is inspiring and 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 this case,” Justice Alito wrote in a brief dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts.

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