Jenner & Block

In Firm Win, Fifth Circuit Voids Death Sentence for Pro Bono Client

Jenner & Block pro bono client Kevan Brumfield will be taken off death row as a result of the firm’s successful argument before the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.  On December 16, 2015, the Fifth Circuit upheld a finding that Mr. Brumfield is intellectually disabled and, therefore, ineligible for the death penalty. The victory for Mr. Brumfield follows a win by the firm in the US Supreme Court earlier this year. 

Mr. Brumfield was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in Louisiana state court in 1995, seven years before the US Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia, which declared it unconstitutional to execute persons who are intellectually disabled.  After Atkins, Mr. Brumfield's 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 trial.  

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 joined the case at the certiorari stage and succeeded in convincing the Court to accept the appeal.  In June, the US Supreme Court held that the federal 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.

With the case remanded to the Fifth Circuit, the firm argued that the court should uphold the district court's finding that Mr. Brumfield is intellectually disabled. Notwithstanding a statement in the Fifth Circuit's prior opinion that it would likely rule against Mr. Brumfield on that issue, the court issued a 43-page opinion in his favor.  The court concluded: "We affirm the ruling of the district court that Brumfield is intellectually disabled and, accordingly, ineligible for execution."   

The team representing Mr. Brumfield includes Associate Amir H. Ali, who argued the case before the Fifth Circuit on December 1, 2015.  Other members of the team include Partner Michael B. DeSanctis, who presented the successful oral argument to the US Supreme Court; Associates R. Trent McCotter and David A. Wishnick; Law Clerk Adrienne L. Benson; Senior Paralegal Cheryl L. Olson; Docketing Assistant Tyler J. Edwards; Legal Secretary Patricia Bryant; Reference Librarian Tricia J. Peavler; and Legal Secretary Coordinator Curlene B. Wellington.  Earlier assistance was provided by Partner Adam G. Unikowsky, Associate Leah J. Tulin and Project Assistant Adam H. Weidman.