U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Two Death Penalty Cases

On May 18, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in two death penalty cases. Both cases are likely to be argued in the fall. The Court accepted the defendant’s petition in Wood v. Allen (No. 08-9156), a case from Alabama. Holly Wood claimed ineffective assistance of counsel, mental retardation, and discrimination in the jury selection process during his trial. After the trial, state and defense experts found that Wood, with an IQ below 70, had serious deficits in intellectual functioning and in at least one area of adaptive functioning—clear evidence of mental retardation. However, despite obvious pre-trial indications of this disability, the defense attorney presented no mitigating evidence on this issue to the jury during the penalty phase of the trial. The novice attorney had no experience in death penalty cases or in any criminal law. In federal habeas proceedings, the District Court vacated Wood’s death sentence due to ineffectiveness of counsel, stating that “[c]ounsel’s failure to investigate and present any evidence of intellectual functioning…is sufficient to undermine confidence in the application of the death sentence.”

Ultimately, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s grant of relief. The first question before the Supreme Court is whether the state court acted unreasonably in concluding that the inexperienced defense lawyer’s decision to leave out this mitigating evidence was strategic, when a review of the entire record indicated it was due to attorney ineptitude. Secondly, the Court will consider a split among the federal circuit courts about the deference they should give to state courts under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Wood maintains that the federal court is obligated to consider the entire record of the case when reviewing the reasonableness of a state court finding, rather than focusing on only parts of the record.

In the second case accepted by the Court, Pennyslvania is challenging a federal court decision granting relief in Beard v. Kindler (No. 08-992). The case involves defendant Joseph Kindler, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1983 for the murder of a witness against him in a burglary incident. Following his conviction, Kindler escaped from prison, but was recaptured one year later in Canada. He escaped again, and finally was extradited back to the United States in 1991. In response to his escape, the trial court dismissed the defendant’s post-conviction motions. Upon his return to the United States, the defendant filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court arguing that the trial court had abused its discretion in dismissing his post-conviction motions. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the trial court. However, in 1999 a federal District Court ruled that the state’s ground for dismissing Kindler’s appeal was inadequate and vacated Kindler’s death sentence. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld this decision, stating that “because state law allowed for discretion to reinstate post-verdict motions following a fugitive’s recapture, any exercise of that discretion to deny reinstatement was not the product of a ‘firm’ rule, and…could not provide an adequate state ground.” Under the adequate state grounds doctrine, federal courts do not review state court rulings if the ground for the decision rested on state law that was adequate to support the ruling. In its petition, the State argues that room for discretion in a state procedural rule does not automatically render a decision under that rule inadequate. Since Kindler’s extradition, the Canadian Supreme Court has held that fugitives should not be extradited from Canada unless there is assurance that the death penalty wil not be sought against the defendant.

See Wood v. Allen, Petition for Writ of Certiorari (March 12, 2009). See also Beard v. Kindler, Petition for Writ of Certiorari (February 2, 2009). See also Scotusblog for briefs, “Today’s Orders,” May 18, 2009. See Supreme Court, Representation and Mental Retardation.