April 7, 2011

U.S. high court restricts federal death penalty appeals

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that federal habeas appeals cannot consider new evidence, but must limit themselves to information already presented at the state court level. The majority opinion, written by Judge Clarence Thomas, will severely restrict federal petitions in capital cases.

The case involved Scott Pinholster of California, convicted and sentenced to death in 1984 for the robbery-murder of a local drug dealer. The only witness to testify for the defense during the penalty deliberations was Pinholster's mother, who testified that he was "a perfect gentleman at home."

Pinholster pursued his federal habeas claim after losing two appeals to the California Supreme Court, in which he argued that his court-appointed lawyer (later disbarred) had failed to present mitigating evidence during the penalty phase of his trial. Pinholster suffered severe abuse and at least two head injuries as a child; he was institutionalized for much of his adult life and there were some indications of a psychiatric disorder.

The crux of Justice Thomas's message is, "Who cares?" If errors are made during a death penalty trial, they are harmless. That is, they don't change the bottom line. Jurors would have voted for death even if they heard additional mitigating evidence, given the weight of the aggravating evidence against these bad hombres.

That's a fiction, of course. A skillful trial attorney who presents a compelling narrative of a defendant's life can often win a life-without-parole verdict (or negotiate a plea deal), even when faced with an egregious crime. Judy Clarke, Jared Loughner's attorney, is one such lawyer. Contrast her with some of the deadbeat lawyers who dine at the public trough, billing the government to represent capital clients while doing virtually no investigation and presenting little in the way of mitigating evidence at the penalty phase of the trial.

In a lengthy dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor (joined in part by Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) lamented that federal judges must now "turn a blind eye" to such miscarriages of justice, even when they result in "harsh" outcomes. "Some habeas petitioners are unable to develop the factual basis of their claims in state court through no fault of their own," she noted.

Commenting at the Law and Biosciences Digest blog, Stanford Law School visiting professor Nita Farahany portrays the case as a virtual death knell for federal claims of ineffective assistance in capital cases:
After [this] major decision … all bets are off on the likely success of claims for ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to introduce mitigating brain evidence at trial. The case may have such broad implications that the double-edged rhetoric about brain damage evidence in the majority opinion is of minor interest by comparison…. A popular claim for ineffective assistance of counsel is failure to introduce particular mitigating evidence at trial. If [federal review] is limited to the record before the state court, then the days of new evidentiary hearings on federal habeas review for ineffective assistance of counsel cases is numbered or over.

The case is the latest stemming from the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, §2254, which restricts the power of federal courts to grant habeas relief to state prisoners.


wolverine4abolishment said...

Conservatives rule the Court! Sad!

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