WASHINGTON, June 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled a Louisiana death row inmate is entitled to a hearing to determine whether he is mentally disabled.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed a 2014 appeal on Thursday that barred Kevan Brumfield from a special hearing to determine his mental abilities. Brumfield was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 in the ambush shooting death of Betty Smothers. Seven years later, the Supreme Court, in a different case, found mentally disabled defendants are not eligible for capital punishment. A federal judge then ruled Brumfield was mentally disabled and protected from execution, but the decision was reversed in an appeals court.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in the majority opinion, noted Brumfield asked for a competency hearing based on evidence of his fourth-grade reading level and previous psychiatric care. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying the court was disregarding "the human cost of its decision." Smothers was a mother of six, including professional football player Warrick Dunn, and working two jobs to make ends meet. In an unusual move, Thomas cited Dunn's 2008 memoirs, "Running for my Life: My Journey in the Game of Football and Beyond," in his dissenting opinion.
"This case is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, we have Kevan Brumfield, a man who murdered Louisiana police officer Betty Smothers and who has spent the last 20 years claiming that his actions were the product of circumstances beyond his control," he wrote. "On the other hand, we have Warrick Dunn, the eldest son of Corporal Smothers, who responded to circumstances beyond his control by caring for his family, building a professional football career, and turning his success on the field into charitable work off the field."
Thomas said the majority did not pay enough attention to the nature of the crime, ignoring the victims.
"It spares not a thought for the 20 years of judicial proceedings that its decision so casually extends. It spares no more than a sentence to describe the crime for which a Louisiana jury sentenced Brumfield to death," he wrote. "It barely spares the two words necessary to identify Brumfield's victim, Betty Smothers, by name. She and her family—not to mention our legal system—deserve better."
Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore said the Supreme Court's ruling was based on procedure, not facts of the case.
"This office will continue to actively pursue the death penalty," the prosecutor's office said.