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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Mitigating Evidence and Death Penalty

A leading case summary of Harvard Law Review: Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman (2007) and Brewer v. Quarterman (2007) (11 pages) The two cases were consolidated.

Eighth Amendment – Death Penalty – Consideration of Mitigating Evidence

The maxim that “death is different” has long guided the Supreme Court’s death penalty jurisprudence. In the landmark case of Lockett v. Ohio, a plurality of the Court declared that the Eighth Amendment mandates that a capital sentencing body be permitted to “consider[], as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendant’s character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death.” In Penry v. Lynaugh, the Court applied the Lockett principle to a death sentence under a Texas statute mandating death if the sentencing body found that the defendant had acted deliberately and was likely to be dangerous in the future. Under that statutory regime, the jury could not necessarily consider and give effect to the mitigating force of the defendant’s mental retardation and history of childhood abuse.

Last Term, in Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman and Brewer v. Quarterman, the Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of two defendants’ death sentences under that same statute. The Court held that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) had misapplied clearly established law by refusing to invalidate the sentences when the sentencers were not permitted to give meaningful effect to the defendants’mitigating evidence: childhood neglect and impulse-control disorder in Abdul-Kabir,9and mental illness, childhood abuse, and substance abuse in Brewer. The Court therefore concluded that under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), federal habeas relief was warranted.

At first sight, the decisions in Abdul-Kabir and Brewer seemed to signal a departure from precedents granting wide deference to state court decisions where the relevant clearly established law was broad and general. In fact, however, the law that the Court invoked in these cases was much narrower than the opinions superficially suggest. Therefore, the Court’s selection of a fact-specific, highly determinative holding as the relevant clearly established law explains how the strictness of the Court’s review of the CCA’s decisions is reconcilable with precedent.