Mitigating Factors in Other States

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

At this point, it’s pretty late in the legal game for John Muhammad, known as The Washington Sniper.  Tried and sentenced to death for the killing of Dean Meyers, the victim of a sniper’s bullet at a Manassas, Virginia gas station in 2002, Muhammad has already exhausted appellate avenues aside from the United States

This morning, at 11:00 EST, oral arguments will begin before the United States Supreme Court on whether or not a federal appeals court (the 6th Circuit) interfered with a state court death penalty case where the defendant was found to be mentally retarded. And while that sounds very procedural and legalistic, whether or not Michael Bies will be executed by the State of Ohio is the real issue here.

The case, Bobby v. Bies (08-598), has the Solicitor General of Ohio, Benjamin C. Mizer, arguing for the warden. Professor John Blume, of Cornell Law School, is advocating for Michael Bies.

It’s Already Been Decided that the Death Penalty Cannot Be Imposed Upon Mentally Retarded Individuals

Back in 2002, the Supreme Court already held that the execution of mentally retarded individuals violates the due process provisions of the Eighth Amendment (Atkins v. Virginia). Today, the High Court is looking at double jeopardy protections. Specifically, in the Bies case, the focus will be whether or not double jeopardy protects a defendant at a state (not federal) post-conviction hearing where mental competency is being assessed pursuant to Atkins, when the issue of the defendant’s “borderline mental retardation” had already been recognized earlier, by the state supreme court.
Continue Reading Will a mentally retarded man, Michael Bies, be put to death in Ohio?