Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence Despite Unexplored Evidence of Mental Retardation

On January 20, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence for Holly Wood for the 1993 shooting of his former girlfriend in Alabama, despite the fact that the attorney working on the penalty phase of the case failed to investigate or tell the jury about Wood’s borderline mental retardation. A federal District Court had overturned his death sentence because of the inadequate performance of the inexperienced lawyer, although other lawyers working on the case had seen a report on Wood’s mental status and did not use it. There was ample other evidence indicating Wood had an IQ of less than 70 and had been classified as mentally retarded that was not pursued by any of the attorneys. The Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, agreed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that Wood failed to show that the lawyers were constitutionally ineffective. The Court stated, “[T]he state court’s conclusion that Wood’s counsel made a strategic decision not to pursue or present evidence of his mental deficiencies was not an unreasonable determination of the facts.” Justice John Paul Stevens, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, noted, “There is a world of difference between a decision not to introduce evidence at the guilt phase of a trial and a failure to investigate mitigating evidence that might be admissible at the penalty phase… the only reasonable factual conclusion I can draw from this record is that counsel’s decision to do so was the result of inattention and neglect.”

(Wood v. Allen, 558 U. S.__, No. 08–9156 (Jan. 20, 2010); “Supreme Court upholds death penalty for mentally impaired Ala. man with inexperienced lawyer,” Associated Press, January 20, 2010). Click here for more U.S. Supreme Court decisions. See also Representation.