Federal appeals court overturns death penalty for DeKalb County man

In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta has thrown out the death sentence imposed on a man convicted of the 1987 murders of his grandmother and a cousin. The court found that his criminal defense attorneys had performed such a poor investigation that they failed to present “very significant” mitigating evidence that would likely have convinced the jury not to sentence him to death.

Although murder is charged as a state crime, defendants can pursue federal appeals when their constitutional rights have been infringed. In this case, the man’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated.

Defendant suffered from brain damage, disabling mental illness, brutal abuse

According to the 100-page opinion, the defendant’s trial lawyers should have told the DeKalb County jury about the defendant’s serious and disabling medical problems and that he had been the victim of vicious abuse as a child.

The man suffers from extensive physical and mental health problems, including organic damage to the frontal lobe of his brain. He also has bipolar disorder, a disabling mental illness that can cause substantial behavioral issues, and he has epilepsy. He tried to attempt suicide at age 11.

When he was a child, the man’s father would routinely wake him up in the middle of the night, strip him naked, and beat him savagely with fan belts and razor strops.

Although that information was clearly relevant to the jury’s decision on whether the defendant deserved the death penalty, his trial lawyers never presented it to the jury — apparently because they did not bother to investigate his background.

“In this case, trial counsel conducted a profoundly incomplete investigation,” reads the federal appeals court’s opinion.

As a result of the appellate court’s opinion, the man is now entitled to a resentencing hearing in which all of the available aggravating and mitigating evidence will be presented. He could again be sentenced to death, or he could be given a lesser sentence.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Appeals court vacates death sentence against DeKalb killer,” Bill Rankin, May 13, 2011