Justices allow execution of Alfred Bourgeois to proceed
on Dec 11, 2020 at 9:31 pm
Alfred Bourgeois became the 10th person to be put to death by the federal government this year, after the Supreme Court on Friday evening denied his application for a delay of the execution. Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor indicated that they would have granted the application.
Federal law and Supreme Court precedent ban the execution of someone who is mentally disabled. Through his counsel, Bourgeois told the justices that he met the current psychological standards for intellectual disability, which became the required legal standard after he was sentenced. He asked the justices to delay his execution so they could consider whether he was legally fit to be punishable by death.
Shortly after the justices denied his appeal, Bourgeois was put to death by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was pronounced dead at 8:21 p.m. EST.
Bourgeois was convicted in 2004 of murdering his two-year old daughter while making a delivery to Corpus Christi Naval Air Station in Texas. Evidence at trial showed that he had beaten his daughter for a month before her death. During an appeals hearing, Bourgeois’ sister revealed that this pattern of abuse was not new: As a child, she said, their mother beat him “over and over” due to his intellectual shortcomings.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who is mentally disabled. After receiving his death sentence, Bourgeois sought a ruling from a federal court in Texas that he was intellectually disabled and thus barred from execution. His appeal was unsuccessful. The court ruled that, although his IQ fell below the threshold for disability, the question whether he had “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning” was a factual point for courts to decide, not a psychological question, and his behavior did not demonstrate disability.
Since then, Bourgeois told the justices, the playing field has changed in two ways.
First, Supreme Court decisions in 2017 and 2019 made clear that under federal law, the relevant standards for intellectual disability in capital cases are the current definitions by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Bourgeois maintained that he met both. He argued after the 2017 decision that the court’s ruling invalidated the denial of his first appeal, but was unsuccessful.
Second, in the summer of 2019, the federal government began scheduling executions for the first time in more than 15 years. Bourgeois received an initial execution date of Jan. 13, 2020. A federal court in Indiana put his execution on hold, finding that Bourgeois had made a “strong showing” of disability under contemporary standards. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit reinstated his execution in October. Bourgeois asked the full 7th Circuit to reconsider; meanwhile, the government set a new execution date of Dec. 11. The day after his request for reargument was denied on Dec. 1, Bourgeois filed one last appeal with the Supreme Court, arguing that the 7th Circuit incorrectly decided he was barred from raising a new claim under federal law. The government urged the justices not to disturb that ruling.
In a brief, unsigned order, the Supreme Court declined Bourgeois’ request for a stay of execution. Sotomayor wrote a four-page dissent that was joined by Kagan.
“The Court today allows the execution of Alfred Bourgeois to proceed even though Bourgeois, who has an IQ between 70 and 75, argues that he is intellectually disabled under current clinical standards,” Sotomayor wrote. She argued that the court should have ordered a stay and taken up Bourgeois’ appeal in order to resolve whether his execution (and those of similarly situated people on death row) is barred by the Federal Death Penalty Act’s prohibition on executing people with intellectual disabilities.