The U.S. Supreme Court, on June 18, issued an opinion potentially making it easier for Atkins claims to be heard and won.

The Court held that a Louisiana court had unreasonably determined the facts in finding that a death-sentenced inmate had not made a sufficient showing that he was intellectually disabled to warrant an evidentiary hearing on his Atkins claim.  The Court held that the inmate was entitled to have his claim considered on the merits in federal habeas.

The case is Brumfield v. Cain.


Kevan Brumfield was sentenced to death for a 1993 murder.  At the time of his trial, Supreme Court precedent allowed a death sentence for intellectually disabled persons.

In 2002, the Supreme Court held in Atkins that execution of intellectually disabled persons violates the Eighth Amendment.

Subsequently, Brumfield sought to raise an Atkins claim in Louisiana state court.  Pursuant to Louisiana law applying Atkins, he alleged that there were objective factors that would put the issue of his mental retardation at issue.

Specifically, Brumfield alleged that three witnesses from the sentencing portion of his trial – his mother, a social worker, and a neuropsychologist – and another examining doctor, would testify that he had an IQ of 75, a fourth-grade reading level, had been in special education, had a learning disability, and had been treated at a number of psychiatric hospitals as a child.

The Louisiana courts dismissed Brumfield’s claim without an evidentiary hearing.  The courts found that Brumfield had a 75 IQ and that his evidence did not show any impairment in adaptive skills.

Brumfield then filed a petition for federal habeas corpus.

The district court held that the state ruling was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,”  28 U.S.C. Sec. 2254(d)(1), and was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding,” Sec. 2254(d)(2).

The district court granted an evidentiary hearing, and found that Brumfield was ineligible for execution because he was intellectually disabled under Atkins.
The Fifth Circuit reversed.  It held that that the state ruling was not an unreasonable application or clearly established federal law, nor an unreasonable determination of the facts.


In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit, but unlike the district court, decided the case under Sec. 2254(d)(2) only.

The Court held the Louisiana courts’ denial of Brumfield’s claim without an evidentiary hearing was an “unreasonable determination of the facts” within the meaning of 2254(d)(2).

In reaching its decision, the Court assumed that the Louisiana courts applied the correct legal standard, and also that Louisiana law was consistent with Atkins. 
The Court held, however, that the Louisiana courts had unreasonably determined the facts in its two premises “that Brumfield’s IQ score was inconsistent with a diagnosis of intellectual disability and that he had presented no evidence of adaptive impairment.”

In Hall v. Florida (2014), the Court held that it was unconstitutional to foreclose all further exploration of intellectual disability simply because a capital defendant has an IQ above 70. 

Accounting for a margin of error in IQ testing, Brumfield’s IQ of 75 “was squarely in the range of potential intellectual disability,” the Court said.  “To conclude, as the state trial court did, that Brumfield’s reported IQ score of 75 somehow demonstrated that he could not possess subaverage intelligence therefore reflected an unreasonable determination of the facts.”

The Court also held that Brumfield had demonstrated objective factors that would show impairment in adaptive skills.  His witnesses would show that he was at risk of neuropsychological trauma from birth, had a learning disability, had been in special education, read at only a fourth-grade level, had difficulty processing information, and had been at mental health facilities. 

The Court held Brumfield had “cleared AEDPA’s procedural hurdles” by showing that the Louisiana courts had unreasonably determined the facts of his Atkins claim.  Brumfield was, thus, entitled to a hearing on his claim in federal court.

The five vote majority of Sotomayor, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan is the same majority as in last Term’s Hall case.  These Justices seem inclined to view future Atkins claims favorably.  If the members of the Court change, however, Atkins’ future could be in doubt.