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US Supreme Court issues decision in death penalty case

The United States Supreme Court returned from its recess this morning. Other than a few summary grants and remands, did not grant certiorari in any cases. It issued one opinion, Schriro v. Landrigan, in which it reversed a decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The case concerns a capital defendant's waiver of his right to present mitigating evidence at a sentencing hearing.

As always, thanks to Scotusblog for the information and link to the opinion.

Justice Thomas authored the majority opinion. He was joined by Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy and Alito. Justice Stevens authored the dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. A discussion of the opinion is set forth below.

The majority holds that the Ninth Circuit was wrong in finding that a federal district court abused its discretion by failing to hold an evidentiary hearing based upon a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The defendant, Jeffrey Landrigan, was convicted of second-degree murder in 1982. In 1986, while in custody for that offense, he repeatedly stabbed another inmate and was convicted of assault and battery with a deadly weapon. In 1989, he escaped and murdered another man. During the sentencing hearing, the defendant's wx-wife and birth mother were to be called by his counsel, but at the defendant's request, both women refused to testify. Upon questioning by the trial court, the defendant stated that he did not wish for his attorney to bring any mitigating circumstances to the court's attention, that he knew the meaning of mitigating circumstances, and that he was not aware of any mitigating circumstances. Counsel proffered that the defendant's birth mother used drugs and alcohol while pregnant, that he abused drugs and alcohol, and that he had been a good father. He also fought against his counsel's attempts to minimize the bad circumstances of the defendant's three convictions. The trial court found aggravating circumstances based upon pecuniary gain and previous convictions involving violence, mitigating circumstances based upon the fact that his family loved him and there was an absence of premeditation, and the court sentenced the defendant to death.

His conviction was affirmed by the Arizona Supreme Court. In state post-conviction proceedings he failed a claim in which he alleged that his counsel failed to explore additional grounds for arguing mitigation evidence, such as the "biological component" of his violent behavior, which would have been established by interviewing his biological father and other relatives. The trial judge heard the post-conviction proceedings and rejected the claim based upon the defendant's instruction to his attorney not to present any evidence at the sentencing hearing. The trial court did not hold an evidentiary hearing. The Arizona Supreme Court denied relief as well.

The defendant then filed a federal habeas application under 2254. Based upon the trial court record and evidence of the defendant's troubled background, history of drug and alcohol abuse, and his family's history of criminal behavior, the federal district court concluded that the defendant could not demonstrate that he was prejudiced by any error that his counsel may have made. It refused to grant an evidentiary hearing. On appeal, the 9th Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed and held that he was entitled to an evidentiary hearing because he raised a "colorable claim" that his counsel's performance fell below the standard required by Strickland. The Circuit reasoned that the defendant's waiver was clearly only referencing the testimony of his ex-wife and birth mother, not all mitigating evidence, and that even if the defendant intended to forego the presentation of all mitigating evidence, such a "last minute decision cannot execuse his counsel's failure to conduct an adequate investigation prior to sentencing."

The US Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that the decision to grant an evidentiary hearing is generally left to the sound discretion of the district courts. In deciding whether to grant an evidentiary hearing, the federal district court must take into account the deferential standards applied to state court judgments under 2254. "It follows that if the record refutes the applicant's factual allegations or otherwise precludes habeas relief, a district court is not required to hold an evidentiary hearing."

The Court then addressed the specific factual allegations presented by the case. It rejected the 9th Circuit's determination that the defendant only precluded his counsel from presenting two witnesses rather than all mitigating evidence and found that the defendant's behavior confirms that he would have undermined the presentation of any mitigating evidence that his attorney might have uncovered.

Next, the Court concluded that neither Wiggins v. Smith nor Strickland v. Washington addresses a situation in which a client interferes with counsel's efforts to present mitigating evidence to a sentencing court. It also distinguished Rompilla v. Beard, by noting that in that case the defendant refused to assist in the development of a mitigation case, but did not inform the court that he did not want mitigating evidence presented. "[I]t was not objectively unreasonable for [the Arizona post-conviction court] to conclude that a defendant who refused to allow the presentation of any mitigating evidence could not establish Strickland prejudiced based on his counsel's failure to investigate further possible mitigating evidence."

The majority next rejected the 9th Circuit's holding that the record did not indicate that the defendant's decision not to present mitigating evidence was "informed and knowing." It noted that it has never imposed an "informed and knowing" requirement upon a defendant's decision not to introduce evidence, but even assuming that such a requirement existed, the defendant could not benefit from such a requirement because the claim was not presented to the Arizona courts (except in a motion for rehearing, which was improper under Arizona law) , because trial counsel stated in the defendant's presence that he had carefully explained to the defendant the importance of mitigating circumstances, and because the defendant stated to the trial court: "I think if you want to give me the death penalty, just bring it on. I'm ready for it." The Court found that it was apparent from this statement that the defendant clearly understood the consequences of telling the jury that as far as he was concerned, there were no mitigating circumstances of which she should be aware.

Finally, the majority concluded that the federal district court reasonably concluded that any additional evidence would not have made a difference in the sentencing decision.

The dissent offers a different view of the mitigating evidence that could have been presented had trial counsel fully investigated his client's background. "No one, not even the Court, seriously contends that counsel's investigation of possible mitigating evidence was constitutionally sufficient" under Wiggins and Strickland. The dissent notes that had counsel performed a reasonable investigation, he would have learned that the defendant has a serious organic brain disorder; the effects of the defendant's birth mother's use of alcohol and drugs during pregnancy; childhood physical and emotional neglect and abuse by the defendant's adoptive parents; serious substance abuse problems, including an overdose in the defendant's 8th grade classroom; a stunted education; and time spent in a psychiatric ward.

The dissent concluded that a waiver of a constitutional right must be knowing, intelligent and voluntary and gave a lengthy analysis of the waiver standard as applied to rights at trial. It councluded that the "state postconviction court's conclusion that respondent completely waived his right to present mitigating evidence involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determinated by this Court." It further concluded that the defendant's statements at the sentencing hearing do not qualify as an informed waiver under the court's precedents. The dissent analyzed the difference between a claim and an argument and found that the waiver found by the majority "is nothing short of baffling." "Respondent never intended for waiver to become an issue because he never thought it was in assue" as it was his argument that he only waived his right to present his mother and ex-wfie as witnesses, not his right to present all mitigating evidence.

Next, the dissent concluded that even if the defendant knew all of the facts about his childhood, that the court could not assumed that he understood the consequences of those facts the way an expert psychologist could. For example, he could not know that he suffered from a serious organic brain disorder or what affect such a disorder might have on his behavior. Because trial counsel failed to conduct a reasonable investigation, the defendant did not know that this important evidence was available to him when he purportedly waived his right to present mitigating evidence.

The dissent next reviewed the majority's decision that the state court reasonably concluded that the defendant waived his right to present mitigating evidence. The dissent found that a careful examination of the record material and the transcripts did not indicate that the defendant intended to make a waiver that went beyond the testimony of his birth mother and ex-wife.

The dissent then discussed the evidence that could have been developed had an evidentiary hearing been conducted, including testimony by trial counsel as to the scope of the defendant's alleged waiver.

Justice Stevens and the dissenting justices next challenged the Court's hoilding that prejudice could not be established because the mitigating evidence which was not disclosed at trial was "weak." It noted that the majority misrepresented the mitigating evidence which existed and based its decision on a cold and incomplete factual record.

Finally, the dissent takes issue with the majority's emphasis on minimizing the burdens of federal district courts and argues that an evidentiary hearing was necessary to fully develop the facts.

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