Jenner & Block

Firm Wins US Supreme Court Victory for Pro Bono Client Kevan Brumfield

On June 18, 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of firm client Kevan Brumfield in the appeal of his death sentence.  In vacating the decision of the Fifth Circuit and remanding the case, the Court adopted the argument made by Partner Michael DeSanctis, who presented oral argument on March 30 — that it was unreasonable for a state court in Louisiana to deny Mr. Brumfield a hearing as to his intellectual disability to determine if he can be executed, based on the standards set forth in the Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia.  The Atkins decision declared it unconstitutional to execute persons who are intellectually disabled.

Mr. Brumfield was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in Louisiana state court in 1995, seven years before the Atkins decision.  After Atkins, his lawyers argued that he should be spared the death penalty because of his intellectual disability.  The state court denied the request without a hearing, saying his intellectual disability was not apparent from the transcript of his death sentencing proceeding. 

Mr. Brumfield then sought habeas relief in Louisiana federal court, where, after seven days of hearings, the judge concluded that Mr. Brumfield was, in fact, intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution.  But the Fifth Circuit reversed, ruling that the district court should have deferred to the state court’s determination and that Mr. Brumfield should remain on death row.

Jenner & Block took the case at the certiorari stage as a referral from the Southern Center for Human Rights and succeeded in convincing the Court to accept the appeal.  In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, the Court held that the district court was correct to give Mr. Brumfield a new hearing because the state court acted unreasonably in denying Mr. Brumfield any hearing at all.  Louisiana’s standard required Mr. Brumfield only to raise a “reasonable doubt” as to his intellectual disability to be entitled to a hearing, and the state court’s explanation as to why Mr. Brumfield had not met that standard was unreasonable.  The Court’s decision can be read here.

In addition to Mr. DeSanctis, the firm’s team representing Mr. Brumfield includes Partner Adam G. Unikowsky and Associates Amir H. Ali, R. Trent McCotter, Jan E. Messerschmidt, Leah J. Tulin and David A. Wishnick and former associate Esteban Morin.