Federal Appeals Court Orders Death Penalty Defendant Resentenced

In the case of an Ohio man who was given the death penalty after being convicted of robbery and murder, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled that he must be resentenced. The Court granted the man’s petition for habeas corpus relief based on ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a lawyer — a competent lawyer. Sometimes, however an attorney is provided but performs his or her duties ineffectively. Ineffective assistance of counsel can violate the defendant’s rights and serve as a basis for both state and federal appeals.

Federal Appeals Court Finds Counsel Ineffective at Sentencing Phase

In this case, the defendant was convicted of aggravated murder with prior calculation and design, aggravated felony-murder, aggravated robbery, and possession of a firearm while under a disability, and both of the murder counts (which both referred to the death of the same person) carried the possibility of the death penalty.

Before sentencing, criminal defense lawyers are expected to perform a background investigation and present any evidence that might convince the jury to choose a lesser sentence, but this defendant’s attorneys performed no investigation and offered no evidence at all during the sentencing hearing. The jury recommended the death penalty, and the judge sentenced the defendant to death.

In fact, there was a great deal of potentially mitigating evidence to be found, had the defense team made any effort to find it.

For example, the defense team declined the court’s offer of a report on the defendant’s criminal history. Instead, it appears they took the prosecution’s word that the defendant had five previous convictions for armed robbery. In fact, the defendant had never been convicted of armed robbery.

The court also offered to provide a standard psychological evaluation, but his defense attorneys also turned that down — because, they said, “there [was] nothing psychiatrically wrong with him.” On the contrary, his appellate lawyer was able to present evidence, for example, that:

  • The defendant is borderline mentally retarded, has signs of an organic brain impairment, may have been born with a drug addiction, and attained only a low level of education, which likely caused “difficulties generating effective problem-solving strategies, deficits in self-regulation, increased impulsivity, and problems in abstract concept formation”
  • For years, he was the victim of sexual abuse by his father, an adult male relative, and others, and was frequently beaten with chains and leather straps
  • He was seriously neglected by his mother, herself a victim of incest, until she abandoned him at age 9

The federal appeals court found that “an examination of his past records, or further investigation with family members, would have revealed and corroborated the true extent of [the defendant’s] past difficulties and provided a wealth of mitigation evidence.”

“Their decision not to present a mitigation case at all,” the Court said, “without conducting a reasonable investigation to determine what mitigation evidence might be available, was clearly constitutionally deficient.”

If the defense had presented a mitigation case, the jury very well might not have voted for the death penalty, the Court found. Therefore, the sentencing hearing must be done over. Therefore, the Court remanded the case to the lower courts for resentencing.

Source: Goodwin v. Johnson, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Case Nos. 06-3571, 06-3572, January 21, 2011