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Amnesty International:

US Supreme Court Wiggins Decision Could Impact Hundreds of Death Row Appeals


Organization Says Incompetent Counsel Prevalent in US Death Penalty System

(Washington, DC) - The US Supreme Court decision that Maryland death row inmate Kevin Wiggin's attorneys did not meet the standard for competent counsel will provide new legal traction for hundreds of death row inmates, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) said today.

"While no one can predict with absolute certainty exactly how many death row inmates' defense fell short of US Constitutional and international standards, Amnesty International has seen hundreds of cases in which juries were not presented with important mitigating evidence," said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn. "In several cases, jurors expressed frustration and dismay that they had sentenced someone to die without knowing key information about their background."

International safeguards require that capital defendants receive adequate legal assistance at all stages, above and beyond that provided in non-capital cases. A recent Amnesty International report, Aide-Memoire to 25 Years of Killing in the US, found that many defendants are too poor to afford their own attorney and receive court-appointed representation. Widespread failure by incompetent or inexperienced counsel at the sentencing phase of capital trials helps to explain why so many innocent people have been sentenced to death. It is at this stage, after the defendant has been convicted, that the state argues for execution and the defense has the opportunity to present evidence in support of a lesser sentence. In case after case, despite the availability of mitigating factors, defense lawyers have presented little or no such evidence, giving the jury little or no reason to vote for a sentence less severe than death.

Amnesty International presents the following cases as some examples of incompetent counsel at the sentencing phase of capital trials.

John Young Executed, Georgia 1985. His lawyer admitted to being unprepared because of personal problems. He was disbarred (on conviction of a drug offense) days after the trial. He presented no mitigation on behalf of his teenage client.

Billy Mitchell Executed, Georgia 1987. His trial lawyer presented no mitigating evidence at the sentencing. The affidavits of individuals who would have testified if they had been asked filled 170 pages of the record in federal court.

Earl Clanton Executed, Virginia 1988. His lawyer spent eight hours with Clanton, including the trial. A federal judge found his "failure to make the slightest effort to obtain mitigating evidence... tantamount to complete dereliction of his professional obligation."

James Messer Executed, Georgia 1988. Numerous federal judges described his lawyer's performance as "unreasonable and prejudicial", "a complete breakdown of the adversarial process", and "egregiously unprofessional."

Leonard Laws Executed, Virginia 1990. His lawyer failed to present mitigation, including that Laws had severe psychological damage in the Vietnam war. A US Supreme Court dissent described the lawyer's conduct as "plainly deficient".

John Gardner Executed, North Carolina 1992. His lawyer, abusing drugs and alcohol at the time of the trial and later suspended from legal practice on the grounds of professional negligence, failed to conduct any mitigation investigation.

Jesus Romero Executed, Texas 1992. His lawyer's entire closing argument was: "You are an extremely intelligent jury. You've got that man's life in your hands. You can take it or not. That's all I have to say." A federal judge found that this conduct was "patently unreasonable", but was overruled on appeal.

Martsay Bolder Executed, Missouri 1993. His attorney failed to present any mitigating evidence. A federal judge overturned the death sentence, but it was reinstated on appeal. A dissenting judge said it was "a miscarriage of justice".

Joe Wise Executed, Virginia 1993. Represented by a lawyer who had never represented a criminal defendant. His argument against execution lasted two minutes, compressing the case for his client's life into 22 sentences.

Carl Johnson Executed, Texas 1995. At the trial, the lead lawyer slept through "significant periods on numerous occasions", according to an affidavit given by the co-counsel, an inexperienced attorney just out of law school.

Larry Stout Executed, Virginia 1996. His lawyer presented no mitigating evidence at the sentencing phase. A federal judge ruled that this had been constitutionally inadequate conduct, but this decision was overturned by a higher court.

Durlyn Edmonds Executed, Illinois 1997. His court-appointed lawyer failed to investigate and present evidence of Edmonds' mental illness, despite the fact that he had been repeatedly diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia.

Victor Kennedy Executed, Alabama 1999. His lawyer failed to present mitigating evidence. A new trial was granted, but this was reversed by a higher court on the grounds that the claim of ineffective representation had been raised too late.

Cornel Cooks Executed, Oklahoma 1999. His lawyer called no witnesses and presented none of the substantial available mitigation evidence at the sentencing phase.

Wanda Jean Allen Executed, Oklahoma 2001. She was her lawyer's first capital case, done for a payment of $800. He was unaware of Allen's borderline mental retardation.

Ronald Frye Executed, North Carolina 2001. His lawyer was an alcoholic who routinely drank instead of working on Frye's case. Several jurors later stated that they would not have voted for death if that had heard about Frye's background.

 
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