U.S. Supreme Court Orders Reconsideration of Georgia Death Sentence Because of Inadequate Representation

On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court returned a death penalty case to the Georgia Supreme Court to reconsider whether the failures of the defendant’s lawyer probably affected the sentence he received. Demarcus Sears was sentenced to death in 1993 for the murder of a woman in Cobb County. Sears’ attorneys attempted to convince jurors to spare his life by saying that he came from a stable and loving family who would be devastated if he received the death penalty. However, the defense lawyers failed to conduct an adequate investigation of Sears’ childhood. They neglected to show that his parents had been in a physically abusive relationship, that he was sexually abused and inappropriately disciplined. By the time Sears reached high school, he was “described as severely learning disabled and as severely behaviorally handicapped.” One expert determined he was among the “most impaired individuals in the population” as a result of significant frontal lobe brain damage. Although a lower court in Georgia found the defense attorneys conduct to be faulty, it concluded that the mitigating evidence that was not presented would not have made a difference. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the evidence “might well have helped the jury understand Sears and his horrendous acts ….” The Court granted certiorari, vacated the judgment below, and ordered Georgia to reconsider the possible prejudice to Sears from the ineffective representation rendered by his lawyers, especially in light of other Supreme Court decisions where attorneys failed to conduct a thorough investigation.

The Court concluded, “A proper analysis of prejudice under Strickland would have taken into account the newly uncovered evidence of Sears’ ‘significant’ mental and psychological impairments, along with the mitigation evidence introduced during Sears’ penalty phase trial, to assess whether there is a reasonable probability that Sears would have received a different sentence after a constitutionally sufficient mitigation investigation.” Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito would not have granted certiorari. Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented from the Court’s decision to send the case back for reconsideration.

(B. Rankin, “Supreme Court says Cobb death case needs another look,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 30, 2010; Sears v. Upton, No. 09-8858 (cert. granted, judgment vacated, and remanded June 29, 2010) (per curiam)). See Representation or click here to read more U.S. Supreme Court cases.