Victory in the U.S. Supreme Court can sometimes be fleeting: in many cases, the Court’s ruling doesn’t end the underlying legal dispute, but instead just sends it back to lower courts for additional proceedings. That’s exactly what happened earlier this year in the case of Kevan Brumfield, a Louisiana inmate on death row for the fatal shooting of Betty Smothers, an off-duty Baton Rouge police officer working as a security guard (and the mother of former NFL star Warrick Dunn). By a vote of five to four, the Court ruled that Brumfield was entitled to have his claim that he was intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty considered on the merits. Brumfield’s case returned to a federal court of appeals, which today handed him a more decisive win by affirming a federal trial court’s earlier ruling that he is indeed intellectually disabled and cannot be executed.
In 2014, the same court of appeals court had reversed the federal trial court’s ruling in Brumfield’s favor. It held that Brumfield had not met the requirements of federal habeas corpus law, which would allow Brumfield to challenge the constitutionality of his state court conviction in federal courts. Although the court of appeals did not then reach the merits of the district court’s conclusion that Brumfield was intellectually disabled, it strongly suggested that it would overturn that determination as well.
But today, just eleven days after holding oral arguments on remand from the Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit – which hears appeals from federal trial courts in the geographic region that includes Louisiana – effectively reversed course. The court acknowledged that the state could “point to evidence that undermines the district court’s conclusion that Brumfield is intellectually disabled,” but it noted that Brumfield had also presented “plausible views of the evidence”: his IQ tests had resulted in scores ranging from 70 to 75, he read at a fourth-grade level, and his writing skills were so limited that it could take him a whole day to write a simple one-page letter. If anything, the court of appeals continued, “Brumfield’s witnesses were somewhat stronger and presented a slightly more compelling view.” With both sides having advanced “plausible” views of the evidence, the court explained, the district court’s conclusion that Brumfield is intellectually disabled cannot be clearly wrong – the legal requirement to overturn this kind of purely factual determination by the district court. And as such, the Fifth Circuit concluded, the district court’s ruling that Brumfield cannot be executed must be affirmed.
Louisiana does have the option to ask the Supreme Court to weigh in on the Fifth Circuit’s ruling; a petition for review would be due early next year. But the Court generally does not take on these kinds of highly fact-specific disputes, and it is unlikely to have the appetite to do so in this case, which has already bitterly divided the Justices once. If today’s ruling stands, the forty-two-year-old Brumfield may still remain in prison for many years, but he will no longer be on death row.