Brumfield v. Cain

Issues 

Are indigent prisoners entitled to government funds to present new claims of mental incompetency in post-conviction proceedings in state court?

Oral argument: 
March 30, 2015

The Supreme Court will determine the extent to which indigent prisoners sitting on death row are entitled to government resources in order to present new claims of mental incompetency in post-conviction proceedings. Brumfield argues that the Louisiana state court violated federal law by interfering with his due process rights. In contrast, Cain argues that the state court did not violate any of Brumfield’s clearly established rights under federal law. This case raises questions about the extent to which federal courts may rely on states’ pre-Atkins proceedings to uphold death sentences imposed on prisoners now offering evidence that they were mentally incompetent. Determining this question implicates the extent to which a state’s quality or reliability of review should factor into the federal courts’ deference to the previous state court determination. This case will have implications for indigent prisoners sentenced to death prior to the Court’s decision in Atkins.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

  1. Has a state court that considers the evidence presented at a petitioner’s penalty phase proceeding as determinative of the petitioner’s claim of mental retardation under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), based its decision on an unreasonable determination of facts under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2)?
  2. Has a state court that denies funding to an indigent petitioner who has no other means of obtaining evidence of his mental retardation has denied petitioner his “opportunity to be heard,” contrary to Atkins and Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986), and his constitutional right to be provided with “basic tools” for an adequate defense, contrary to Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 69 (1985)?

Facts 

This case arises from Kevan Brumfield’s 1993 conviction for the murder of a Baton Rouge police officer and an attempted armed robbery. On January 5, 1993, Brumfield and an associate went to a self-described psychic counselor for a reading. While there, Brumfield informed the psychic that he planned to commit a robbery and asked which was the best day to commit the crime. Two days later, two armed gunmen attacked a grocery store manager and an off-duty Baton Rouge police officer escorting a cash delivery from the grocery store. During the attack, the police officer was killed and the grocery store manager was critically wounded. Brumfield was arrested after he admitted to a friend that he had just killed an individual. During the police interrogation, Brumfield denied involvement in the robbery, but later admitted to his role as a getaway driver in the crime. He further confessed to shooting the victims in a subsequent interview. Based on these two confessions, a Louisiana jury convicted Brumfield for first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery and recommended the death penalty.

Brumfield received a direct appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed his conviction. In 2000, Brumfield filed for post-conviction relief with the Louisiana, arguing that he was ineligible for execution by reason of insanity and mental incompetency. While his petition was pending, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that mentally incompetent individuals cannot be subject to the death penalty. In 2003, Brumfield amended his post-conviction relief petition, citing Atkins to argue that he warranted an evidentiary hearing on his mental incompetency. The state habeas court denied the hearing, citing a lack of resources to evaluate Brumfield’s mental capacity. The Louisiana Supreme Court denied appellate review of the state habeas court’s findings.

In 2004, Brumfield filed a federal petition for habeas corpus and amended it in 2007 to reincorporate his Atkins claim. The district court denied the initial habeas petition, finding that there was insufficient trial evidence showing that Brumfield suffered from mental incompetency. However, the district court stated that Brumfield should be granted an Atkins hearing to determine whether Brumfield did have a mental impairment. Specifically, the federal court found that Brumfield suffered prejudice by the state for its failure to grant him funds for the full psychological evaluation necessary to support his defense. After Brumfield’s Atkins hearing, the district court concluded that the state trial court was unreasonable in its determination of the facts, in violation of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). The district court further rejected the State’s arguments that new cases limiting the scope of mental retardation in the Fifth Circuit supported denying Brumfield habeas relief.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed, finding that the district court erred in declaring the state’s habeas review to be an unreasonable determination of the facts under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and § 2254(d). Specifically, the Fifth Circuit reasoned that, while defendants are entitled to put forth evidence of mental incapacity, there was no authority requiring the government to fund a defendant’s psychological evaluation. The Fifth Circuit further found that the state was reasonable to deny Brumfield’s petition for an Atkins hearing because the state court considered the merits of granting such a hearing based on Louisiana’s test for mental retardation. Therefore, the Fifth Circuit concluded, the district court failed to grant the state court decision appropriate deference under the AEDPA. Following this decision, the Supreme Court granted Brumfield’s petition for a writ of certiorari.

Analysis 

The main issue in this case is whether an indigent prisoner sitting on death row is entitled to government resources in order to present new claims of mental incompetency in post-conviction proceedings. The parties in this case disagree about whether the state court violated clearly established federal law under § 2254(d)(1) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) when the court did not provide Brumfield with funds to acquire expert witnesses. They further disagree about whether the Louisiana state court reasonably determined the facts of Brumfield’s Atkins claim under § 2254(d)(2).

Brumfield argues that he is entitled to federal habeas corpus under the AEDPA because the state court’s denial of his Atkins claim was unreasonable. Moreover, he contends that AEDPA does not bar a federal court from granting him habeas corpus because the Louisiana state court violated federal law by interfering with his due process rights. In opposition, Cain contends that AEDPA bars Brumfield from federal habeas corpus relief because the state court made a reasonable determination of Brumfield’s Atkins claim and because the state court did not violate any of Brumfield’s clearly established rights.

THE STATE COURT’S DETERMINATION REGARDING BRUMFIELD’S ATKINS CLAIM

Brumfield argues that the AEDPA does not bar him from federal habeas relief because the state court unreasonably denied his Atkins claim. According to Brumfield, this denial was unreasonable because the state court based its decision on a sentencing hearing that occurred before the Supreme Court decided Atkins. Brumfield was sentenced to death in 1995, seven years before the Supreme Court held that the Constitution prohibits the government from executing an intellectually disabled person in Atkins v. Virginia. Therefore, Brumfield raised an Atkins claim for the first time in a post-conviction proceeding. Brumfield argues that the state court unreasonably determined that he was not intellectually disabled because “[n]othing in his pre-Atkins sentencing record was dispositive of whether he was or was not intellectually disabled.” Specifically, Brumfield contends that there was evidence in the record that indicated he was intellectually disabled. Further, he claims that the absence of certain evidence necessary to prove he is intellectually disabled—such as evidence showing he lacks adaptive skills—is only absent because pre-Atkins, Brumfield had no reason to present such evidence to the state court.

In opposition, Cain contends that the state court made a reasonable determination as to Brumfield’s Atkins claim. First, Cain claims that the court in fact relied on “volumes of factual material,” including extensive evidence about his childhood, development, and behavior. Cain argues that the fact that this evidence was collected for a purpose other than an Atkins hearing does not make the evidence insufficient to make a reasonable determination about Brumfield’s intellectual ability. Second, Cain claims that the absence of any evidence related to Brumfield’s adaptive skills within the record is determinative. He argues that given the breadth of evidence in the record, any evidence that indicated Brumfield lacked adaptive skills would have appeared in the record. Moreover, Cain contends that evidence in the record related to Brumfield’s commission of his crime actually indicates that he has adaptive skills. For example, Cain points to evidence that Brumfield carefully planned his crime and that after committing it, he made attempts to evade punishment, which is evidence of adaptive skills. Furthermore, Cain argues that a plaintiff cannot bring a claim under AEDPA that the court should have heard more evidence on before coming to its decision. In so arguing, he points to the language of § 2254(d)(2), which states that in order for a federal court to grant habeas, the state court’s determination must be unreasonable “in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.” He claims that this language indicates that a plaintiff may only argue that given the evidence the state court actually heard, the state court’s decision was unreasonable.

DID THE STATE COURT VIOLATE CLEARLY ESTABLISHED FEDERAL LAW?

Brumfield contends that by failing to ensure that he had funding to secure a medical expert witness, the Louisiana state court violated clearly established federal law. Specifically, Brumfield argues that the court violated the rule of law established in Ake v. California, which states that if a defendant makes clear to a judge that his sanity will be a significant issue in the trial, the state must provide the defendant with a competent psychiatrist. Although the factual situation in Brumfield’s case is not identical to that in Ake, Brumfield contends that Ake clearly mandated that the court provide him with access to a clinical evaluation in this case because his mental condition was a “significant factor.” Brumfield also contends that it does not matter that he first brought these claims in a post-conviction proceeding because Atkins was decided before he was convicted and sentenced; consequently, the post-conviction proceeding was his first opportunity to bring these claims.

Brumfield further asserts that the state court violated his constitutional right to an opportunity to be heard by failing to allow him to supplement the record, at the outset, with testimony from his own medical expert. Brumfield argues that the state court’s refusal to provide funding for a medical expert was inappropriate because—based on the Supreme Court case Ford v. Wainrighthe should be allowed to present material relevant to his sanity. Additionally, based on the Supreme Court holding in Panetti v. Quarterman, Brumfield claims that a defendant who has made a threshold showing of insanity is entitled to a fair hearing regarding his sanity and funding for a medical expert. Brumfield argues that the state court violated his constitutional right by dismissing his intellectual disability claim before ruling on his motion for funding for a medical expert.

On the other hand, Cain claims that the state court did not violate Brumfield’s due process rights. Specifically, Cain argues that Brumfield did not exhaust his constitutional claims by presenting them in state court and that he does not have a clearly established right to supplement the record with expert testimony. Cain argues that Brumfield never raised his constitutional claims regarding Atkins, Ford, or Panetti in state court. Rather, he made claims under the state constitution and failed to bring them under the federal constitution. Therefore, Cain contends, Brumfield is unable to bring them in a habeas proceeding.

Moreover, Cain asserts that the due process claims on which Brumfield relies are not clearly established, and therefore, the Supreme Court is barred from granting him relief. Cain contends that a rule of law is only clearly established if a decision contradicts a previous holding of the Court, and that no previous Court decision clearly holds that Brumfield had a due process right to expert assistance during his post-conviction proceeding, or a right to supplement the record with evidence from his own medical expert.

Discussion 

This case presents the Supreme Court with the opportunity to determine the extent to which defendants can argue for a right to government resources in order to further evaluate their claims of mental incapacity. Brumfield argues that the state’s refusal to grant him post-conviction resources to fully evaluate his claims of mental incompetency violates his rights under Atkins v. Virginia. Cain, on the other hand, contends that Brumfield does not have a clearly established right to government resources for psychological evaluations and therefore is not entitled to additional post-conviction relief. The outcome of this case may determine the extent to which death row inmates can access government resources to evaluate their claims for mental incompetency in post-conviction sentencing challenges.

RELIANCE ON STATE EVALUATIONS FOR MENTAL INCOMPETENCE

Brumfield contends that he was denied an opportunity to fully evaluate his claims for mental incompetency. Specifically, he argues that the state’s psychological evaluations did not specifically look for evidence of intellectual disability, and therefore were insufficient. Writing as an amici, the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (LACDL) and The Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) argue that Brumfield’s case falls in a gap period during which the Louisiana legislature enacted, but did not fund, an expansion of resources for indigent defendants to undergo psychological evaluations. Brumfield’s situation, the LACDL amici argue, is in contrast with Louisiana inmates on appeal or in post-conviction who were able to secure state funding for mental competency evaluations. Denying Brumfield such an opportunity, the LACDL Amici conclude, would unfairly prejudice him compared to the other inmates.

In contrast, Cain argues that the state habeas courts properly relied upon the trial evidence demonstrating that Brumfield was not mentally incompetent. In this case, Cain argues, resources were dedicated for multiple experts to evaluate Brumfield. It is unreasonable, Cain argues, that a holistic examination conducted by multiple experts would preclude them from finding whether Brumfield suffers from mental incompetency. Therefore, Cain concludes, the state appropriately expended sufficient resources for Brumfield’s psychological evaluations.

THE INTERPLAY OF STATE AND FEDERAL COURTS

Further, Professor Michael Dorf of Law at Cornell Law School, posits that this case raises questions about the extent to which federal courts may rely on states’ pre-Atkins proceedings to uphold death sentences imposed on prisoners now offering evidence that they are mentally incompetent. Determining this question, according to Professor Keir Weyble, also of Cornell Law School, requires deciding the extent to which a state’s quality or reliability of review should factor into the federal courts’ deference.

Conclusion 

This case presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity to decide whether death row inmates are entitled to government funding to obtain psychological evaluations for a mental incompetency claim after they have been convicted. A psychological evaluation showing that the prisoner is mentally incompetent would remove him from death row. In this case, Brumfield argues that, by denying him funding for such evaluations, the state court violated his federal due process rights. In contrast, Cain argues that Brumfield does not have a clearly established right to such funding. The Court’s decision may expand government resources to death row inmates to challenge their capital sentences.

Edited by 

Acknowledgments 

The authors would like to thank Professors Keir Weyble, Michael Dorf, and John Blume for their help.

Additional Resources