U.S. Supreme Court Restores Death Sentence Despite Questionable Representation

On April 4, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the opinions of two lower federal courts that had granted a new sentencing hearing to Scott Pinholster, who is on death row in California. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had held that Pinholster’s attorneys provided inadequate representation in not investigating evidence of severe brain damage. The attorneys should have pursued medical evidence that Pinholster was an epileptic who suffered blows to the head in two car accidents. He was sent to a mental institution at the age of 11. His trial lawyer, however, failed to call a mental health expert to testify about his diminished mental capacity. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, reversed, holding that the lower court did not exhibit sufficient deference to the state court, which upheld the representation Pinholster received. That deference is required by both the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and by the Court’s prior decisions on counsel. The Court concluded that even if Pinholster’s attorneys were inadequate, the new evidence would not have made a difference: “There is no reasonable probability that the additional evidence Pinholster presented in his state habeas proceedings would have changed the jury’s verdict.”

Various Justices dissented to particular parts of the majority opinion, including Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor concluded: “[T]he evidence confirmed what was already apparent from the state-court record: Pinholster’s counsel failed to conduct an adequate mitigation investigation, and there was a reasonable probability that at least one juror confronted with the ‘voluminous’ mitigating evidence counsel should have discovered would have voted to spare Pinholster’s life.”

(Cullen v. Pinholster, No. 09-1088 (April 4, 2011); D. Savage, “Supreme Court restores death sentence in 1982 Tarzana murders,” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2011). See Mental Illness, Representation and Supreme Court.