Sotomayor's First Criminal Opinion Disappoints
Supreme Court Justice Sonja Sotomayor's issued her first signed criminal opinion this morning in Wood v Allen, upholding the death penalty for a man with a borderline IQ. It affirms the 11th Circuit's denial of habeas relief, deferring to the Alabama Supreme Court's decision under AEDPA that defense counsel was not ineffective, because he made a "strategic decision" not to present evidence of the mental deficiencies.
Justice Stevens and Kenney dissented. (Opinion here.) [More...]
The man, Holly Wood, convicted in 1994 by a court in Alabama of murdering a former girlfriend, was represented during his murder trial by three court-appointed attorneys, including one just out of school and with no experience on a capital case.
The young lawyer took charge of the sentencing phase of the case after Wood had been found guilty and jurors were deciding if he would get life in jail or the death penalty. Jurors picked execution by 10 to two. The Supreme Court found that the attorney deliberately chose not to present findings about Wood's mental profile for fear it would hurt him.
Wood had three lawyers, two experienced, one right out of school. The young, inexperienced lawyer was put in charge of the death penalty phase. All three lawyers read the experts report finding Wood mentally deficient, and the young lawyer, being in charge, decided not to bring it to the jury's attention, for fear they would hold it against him.
Sotomayor says the Alabama court's finding that this was a strategic decision, not a negligent omission, is a reasonable one.
In this case, petitioner, a capital defendant,challenges the key factual finding made by the Alabama state court that denied his application for postconviction relief: that his attorneys’ failure to pursue and resentmitigating evidence of his borderline mental retardation was a strategic decision rather than a negligent omission. Petitioner argues that the state court’s finding was unreasonable...
We conclude, however, that the state court’s factual determination was reasonable...
The factual determination upheld today:
As to Wood’s claim of mental retardation, the court found that, while the evidence suggested that he “probably does exhibit significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning,” he had failed to show “that he has significant or substantial deficits in his adaptive functioning.”
What a disappointment from our newest justice.
Update: I just noticed this footnote in her opinion discussing the dissent:
The dissent suggests that counsel could not have made a strategic decision not to pursue evidence of Wood’s mental deficiencies because there could be no reasonable justification for doing so.... This interpretation conflates the question whether a decision was strategic with the question whether a strategic decision was reasonable.Sounds like she is playing word hockey when a man's life at issue.
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