Alabama Court Affirms Death Sentence for Defendant with Mild Neurocognitive Disorder

Above: Michael Belcher being escorted from court during his 2019 trial — Image Source: Tuscaloosa News

On December 16, 2020, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama affirmed the capital murder conviction and death sentence of Michael David Belcher, who suffers from a mild neurocognitive disorder.

In November 2015, a hunter discovered the decapitated body of Samantha Payne tied to a tree in a forest. Her head was found 14 feet away from her body. A medical examiner later testified that four of her ribs were fractured, and that she was alive when she was tied to the tree.

Five people were involved in Payne’s kidnapping and murder. All pleaded guilty except for Belcher, whose case went to trial. Several of Belcher’s co-defendants testified against him and stated that he was the one who killed Payne. At trial, Belcher was convicted of capital murder during the course of a kidnapping. He was sentenced to death. This is the automatic appeal of that sentence.

During sentencing, a psychologist had testified that he had conducted a neuropsychological evaluation of Belcher and found that Belcher suffered from a “mild neuro-cognitive disorder” and had “some degree of impairment in one area of his thinking ability.”

When evaluating Belcher’s neurocognitive disorder as a mitigating circumstance, the trial court was “not convinced from the evidence that any such disorder rises to the level of being an extreme mental or emotional disturbance such that it is a statutory mitigating circumstance.”

On appeal, Belcher made 21 claims. One of these claims was that the court should not have allowed his statements he made during interviews with the police to be admitted during trial. He argued that his statements were involuntary, saying that he had a difficult time staying awake and had difficulties that were “compounded by his mild neuro-cognitive disorder.”

The court cited Baker v. State, 557 So. 2d 851, 853 (Ala. Crim. App. 1990), which said that “The fact that a defendant may suffer from a mental impairment or low intelligence will not, without other evidence, render a confession involuntary.” The court held that Belcher’s statements were voluntary as he did not appear to be under the influence of any substances and police did not make him any promises, and thus he was due no relief for this claim.

The court similarly found that Belcher was due no relief for any of his other claims. The court held, “We have independently weighed the aggravating circumstances and the mitigating circumstances, and we are convinced that the death penalty was the appropriate sentence for Belcher.” The court affirmed Belcher’s conviction of capital murder and sentence of death.

Key words: death penalty, capital punishment, neurocognitive disorder, Alabama

Citation: Belcher v. State, 2020 WL 7382535

This post is the 52nd post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.

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Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

at Mass General Hospital, Harvard Medical School