US Supreme Court Heard Oral Arguments Yesterday in Wood v. Allen, reviewing Actions of Defense Counsel in Sentencing Phase

Representing clients facing the sentence of dying by the government's hand for crimes they have allegedly committed is what I do.  And, while I represent clients in both phases of a death penalty case, I am particularly known for my work in representing defendants during the sentencing phase. 

So, I'm watching Wood v. Allen with particular interest as it winds its way through review by the highest court in the land.

By way of background, a man named Holly Wood was convicted in an Alabama court of killing his girlfriend.   He was sentenced to die for this act.  Mr. Wood was represented by defense counsel, and Mr. Wood is now arguing that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at the trial because one of his trial lawyers failed to introduce key evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial. 

What was that crucial evidence?  It was evidence of a mitigating factor to be considered in Mr. Wood's sentencing -- that he was mentally retarded. 

Holly Wood had three lawyers during the trial, but like many death penalty cases the defense duties were divided, and it's uncontested here that the lawyer responsible for the sentencing phase of the case was a novice.   And here is where things get complicated.

As Mr. Wood's case manuevered through the waters of the state appellate process, his appellate counsel argued that this novice attorney did not provide adequate representation -- and all the state reviewing courts failed to agree.  Instead, they held that Wood's more experienced counsel intentionally withheld the mental retardation evidence as part of their overall trial strategy. 

Entering the federal appellate system under a writ for habeas corpus under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the federal district court went Wood's way and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, opining that that the AEDPA limits review to "...whether there is evidence to support the state courts' findings" and the Alabama court's fact finding was reasonable since Wood failed to show that the defense decision not to present the evidence was not strategic.   Of course, there was a strong dissent which wisely pointed out that the Eleventh Circuit opinion was based upon nothing but "pure speculation" that not presenting key mitigating evidence was a "strategic decision."

There are several critical things to be considered in the Wood case, not the least of what are these two: 

(1) procedurally, the AEDPA limits the power that a federal court has in reviewing state court decisions regarding the death penalty and is this right?  (Most of the oral argument involved an analysis of the AEDPA's application to the Alabama case.)   And how badly written is this law (the two provisions addressed in Wood arguably support that this legislation was very badly drafted)? 

(2) a man faces death here -- a man that no one is arguing is mentally retarded.  It's not subject for debate that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone who is mentally retarded.  That was already decided in Atkins v. Virginia.  

Still, despite the procedural loggerheads of the AEDPA and the reality that Mr. Wood is mentally retarded, Holly Wood may well be put to death by the State of Alabama.  Consider the comments of Justice Scalia during the arguments yesterday, where he stated that the defense counsel had been savvy not to put the mental retardation facts into evidence at trial because "[t]here was nothing here that was going to help them, and there might be stuff that would hurt them."   Practically speaking, following Scalia's way of thinking, should we allow a mentally retarded man to be executed assuming arguendo that it was best during the trial phase not to reveal his mental incapacities?

The transcript of the oral argument heard by the US Supreme Court yesterday in Wood v. Allen  is already online for your review.

US Supreme Court Finds Prosecution Intentionally Violated Due Process in 20 Yr Old Death Penalty Case

Monday, the Supreme Court heard argument in the Bies case (see 04/27/09 post), and the very next day issued its opinion in Cone v. Bell, 555 U.S. ___ (2009), both capital punishment cases where the defendant argued a diminished capacity of some sort. In today's case, there was an intentional hiding of the ball by the State and a definite due process problem.

Gary Cone was a known drug addict who murdered two people.

It is undisputed that Gary Cone was a Vietnam veteran who returned home to Memphis, Tennessee, and failed to cope well with civilian life. One Saturday morning in 1980, Gary Cone robbed a jewelry store - obviously, not very well - and was promptly pursued by local police in what turned into a high speed chase.

Veering into a residential neighborhood, Cone abandoned his car and shot both a police officer and a Good Samaritan who tried to stop him as Cone fled on foot. On the hunt for another getaway car, Cone tried to carjack someone and when they refused to give them the keys, he tried to shoot them, too, only to find he was out of bullets. By this time, helicopters were flying overhead and the scene was escalating to a frantic pace. (You've seen the reality TV shows like COPS, you can visualize these events.)

Somehow that Saturday afternoon, Cone got away. No one could find him. However, early the next morning, Gary Cone was still in the neighborhood - knocking on the door of an elderly couple, Shipley and Cleopatra Todd. He asked to use their phone; Cleo Todd refused and slammed the door on Cone. Cleo called the cops, and still Cone could not be found.

The tragedy occurred later that same day. Cone returned to the Todd home, forced himself into their house, and beat the two senior citizens to death before tearing their house apart. He shaved there, got himself to the Memphis airport, and was busted while robbing a drug store in Pompano Beach, Florida a couple of days later.

Vietnam Vet Cone Asserted an Insanity Defense - He Didn't Contest His Actions

Vietnam vet Gary Cone was arrested, tried, and convicted of the Todds' murder. He never challenged evidence that showed he committed these horrific acts. What he asserted as his defense was his mental illness: Cone's defense team brought forth evidence to show that Cone suffered from chronic amphetamine psychosis, a mental disorder caused by excessive drug abuse.

Experts testified that the drug use began while Cone was serving in Vietnam, where he was using "horrific" quantities of drugs while dealing with the bodies of dead soldiers. The mental illness caused by this drug use created a level of paranoia and a disorder including hallucinations that would keep Cone from understanding or being able to conform to everyday life and the boundaries imposed by Tennessee law.

In sum, the entirety of Cone's defense was mental illness. He was legally insane when the crimes were committed.

Prosecution Hid Reports from Cops on the Scene that Cone was "Wild-Eyed" and looked frenzied, and was acting crazy and weird

Who knows why the prosecution did such a blatantly wrong thing, but they did. They decided NOT to turn over witness statements and police reports from cops on the scene that obviously supported the lunacy of Gary Cone.

And these eyewitness accounts from police on the scene back in 1980 that fateful weekend in Memphis were crucial to the mental insanity arguments made by Gary Cone. They said things like Cone was "acting weird" and looked like he "was drunk or high." A cop reported that Cone was looking around in "a frenzied manner," and walking around in "an agitated manner." (For all the details, check out the Supreme Court opinion.)

These witness statements and police reports were withheld in direct contravention of the due process guarantees provided by the United States Constitution as well as the directives of the U.S. Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). Brady holds that when a State suppresses evidence favorable to an accused that is material either to the finding of guilt or to the assessment of punishment, the State violates the defendant's right to due process, "irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution." Id., at 87.

However, the Cone case is particularly egregious because the prosecution made no mistake here - they intentionally kept this evidence back. Those present at the oral argument in the Cone case report that the Justices were particularly upset about this fact and showed their displeasure in their questioning of the attorneys arguing on behalf of the prosecution. Imagine that - now that is real courtroom drama.

Supreme Court Sends the Case Back - Sentencing Phase Due Process Was Thwarted

The written opinion came down yesterday. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, explained that information in the documents that were withheld by Tennessee prosecutors would not have sustained Cone's insanity defense - the police reports and witness statements were not enough to clear him of the crimes - but they were extremely relevant to his sentencing and whether or not the death penalty should be imposed:

"[b]ecause the suppressed evidence might have been material to the jury's assessment of the proper punishment, a full review of that evidence and its effect on the sentencing verdict is warranted."
Now, a federal judge will decide whether Gary Cone should remain on Death Row.

Here's another example of why criminal defense attorneys are committed to their work.

And for those of you wondering why people like me do what we do, well here is one prime example.

Due process is the only thing that protects the individual in this society when those in authority don't do the right thing. And it's through criminal defense attorneys at the trial and appellate levels that bring these cases through the review process, so that justice can be served and the backdoor maneuvers of overzealous prosecutors can be brought into the light of day.

News sources:

Reuters
All Headline News
The Tennessean

 
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