West Law Report

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel for Capital defendant

A leading case summery of Harvard Law Review: Schriro v. Landrigan (2007) (11 pages)

Sixth Amendment — Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Capital defendants are not always cooperative or repentant, even at sentencing hearings determinative of their fates. Some death penalty defendants may refuse to aid in investigation of mitigating evidence, or they may actively obstruct presentation of it during the sentencing phase. Others may flaunt the purposeful nature of their killings, their lack of remorse, or their willingness to be put to death for their crimes. Courts must be aware, however, that this behavior may be due to mental illness or caused by physical and emotional abuse, a genetic disorder, or drug addiction — characteristics that may reduce a defendant’s moral culpability.

Last Term, in Schriro v. Landrigan, the Supreme Court upheld a state court’s finding that a defendant who refused to allow the presentation of mitigating evidence from his family members was not prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to investigate fully or to present other sorts of mitigating evidence. Thus, the Court held, the defendant was not entitled to an evidentiary hearing on the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court failed to analyze the context of Landrigan’s refusal, including unique concerns about particular mitigating evidence and the defendant’s background — factors that may have explained his statements and behavior. Moreover, the Court did not consider the defendant’s refusal in the context of its waiver precedents or the importance of mitigating evidence. Courts should not expand a limited refusal to present only some mitigating evidence into a complete refusal to present any mitigating evidence, nor should they allow recalcitrant behavior at sentencing to justify eradication of a defendant’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.

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Presumption of Reasonableness of Sentencing

A leading case summery of Harvard Law Review: Rita v. United States (2007) (11 pages)

Sixth Amendment — Federal Sentencing Guidelines — Presumption of Reasonableness

In United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court found that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment. It held the Guidelines unconstitutional because they required judges to increase sentences above the level authorized by facts conceded by the defendant or found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Its remedy — making the Guidelines advisory rather than mandatory and changing the standard of review on appeal to reasonableness — created a host of contested legal questions, including whether appellate courts could apply a presumption of reasonableness in reviewing sentences falling within the applicable Guidelines range.

Last Term, in Rita v. United States, the Supreme Court held that an appellate court could apply such a presumption. But by also articulating a weak standard for the requirement that a sentencing judge provide a statement of reasons for the penalty she imposes, the Court
undermined the rationale justifying the presumption. In so doing, i implicitly sanctioned lower court treatment of the Guidelines as de facto mandatory after Booker. To justify an appellate presumption founded on the exercise of independent trial-level judgment and to make real the constitutional promise of Booker, trial judges should be required to express in writing their precise reasons for choosing a particular sentence and rejecting any departures sought by the defendant. In January 2003, Victor Rita purchased a machine gun parts kit from InterOrdnance of America, Inc., the target of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives investigation. That October, Rita provided testimony before a grand jury that was contradicted by separate evidence. The government indicted Rita in the United States District Court for the District of North Carolina on various charges, including making false statements under oath to a federal grand jury. The jury convicted Rita on all counts.

Death Qualification Decisions

A leading case summery of Harvard Law Review (Issue 121, Nov 2007): Uttecht v. Brown (2007) (11 pages)

Sixth Amendment — Death Qualification Decisions

Endless review of death sentences is exhausting the courts. The legislative response to this problem can be seen in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), which sharply limits federal habeas review of state court decisions. The judicial response is apparent in the Supreme Court’s increasing reluctance to reverse sentences for minor errors many years after their imposition.

The Justices’ frustration with the delaying tactics of capital defendants was on display last Term in Uttecht v. Brown, in which the Court reinstated a thirteen-year-old death sentence overturned by the Ninth Circuit. The Court held that the trial judge had not abused his discretion by striking a potential juror who expressed some hesitancy to impose a death sentence under the circumstances of the case and whose removal was not objected to by defense counsel. Brown should remind appellate judges of the high degree of deference afforded to trial court determinations, particularly under circumstances that suggest the trial judge may have been relying on his observation of an individual’s demeanor. But as Congress and the Court move to curb excessive review of death sentences, it is important that lower courts not mistake more lenient standards of review on appeal for less rigorous first-order standards. Brown did not alter the standard that trial judges must apply in deciding whether to exclude a juror for cause, which remains strongly tilted toward retention of all but the most biased veniremen.

Allocation of Factfinding in Sentencing

A leading case summery of Harvard Law Review: Cunningham v. California (2007) (11 page)

Sixth Amendment — Allocation of Factfinding in Sentencing

Apprendi v. New Jersey spawned a series of Supreme Court sentencing decisions which, when viewed together, are at best confusing and at worst contradictory. Commentators and courts have struggled to find a coherent governing principle uniting Apprendi, Blakely v. Washington, and United States v. Booker. The holding in Apprendi, originally described as a “bright-line rule,” has proved anything but. Last Term, in Cunningham v. California, the Court added another chapter to the Apprendi saga when it declared unconstitutional California’s Determinate Sentencing Law (DSL). Justice Ginsburg authored the majority opinion that overturned the California Supreme Court’s determination that the DSL did not differ in any constitutionally relevant way from the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, as revised by Booker.

Although at first blush Cunningham seems to be an ode to meaningless formalism, reading between the lines of its opinions exposes a substantive debate about what the Sixth Amendment means and why it matters. The Court’s decision implicitly protects the role of the jury, so that the voices of individual citizens may serve as a check against the legislature when it diverges from the will of the people.