Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of January 182021

NEWS (1/22/21) — Texas: The Kaufman County District Attorney’s office has conceded that Texas death-row prisoner Charles Brownlow is intellectually disabled and cannot be resentenced to death. The county prosecutors’ decision comes after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Brownlow’s death sentence, saying that the state courts had previously rejected his claim of intellectual disability using a definition of the disorder that the U.S. Supreme Court later struck down as unconstitutional.

Assistant District Attorney Marc Moffitt said a prosecution expert had reviewed the trial transcripts and the evidence relating to Brownlow’s intellectual and adaptive functioning. The expert, Moffitt said that Brownlow “is intellectually disabled” and that “we would not prevail” if Brownlow’s claim was adjudicated under clinically accepted definitions of intellectual disability.

A DPIC review of death-penalty cases overturned because of a defendant’s intellectual disability shows that a defendant who is intellectually disabled is much more likely to be wrongfully sentenced to death if he is Black. More than 80% of the death-row prisoners whose death sentences have been vacated as a result of intellectual disability (107 of 132, 81.1%) are persons of color. Two-thirds are African American (88, or 66.7%).


NEWS (1/19/21) — Federal: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has granted habeas corpus relief to federal death-row prisoner Keith Barrett, finding he was provided ineffective assistance of counsel in the penalty phase of his capital trial for the killing of an Oklahoma state trooper.

The court reversed the judgment of an Oklahoma federal district court, which had determined that Barrett’s appointed counsel had unreasonably failed to investigate and present available mitigating evidence of brain damage, mental illness (bipolar disorder and PTSD), and chronic childhood trauma in the sentencing phase but ruled that counsel’s failures had not been prejudicial. Without rehearing any of the testimony taken by a federal magistrate judge during the course of a seven-day hearing, the district court had rejected the magistrate’s findings regarding prejudice, asserting that “the jury would not have been impressed by [Mr. Barrett’s] experts’ opinions.”

The appeals court disagreed. It held that Barrett’s unpresented mitigating evidence would have weakened the prosecution’s case in aggravation and, given the minimal mitigating evidence presented at trial, substantially strengthened Barrett’s case for life. The appeals panel found that “if defense counsel had presented the evidence of Mr. Barrett’s mental impairments and childhood abuse at sentencing, there is a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have concluded that the balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant death.”

Sources

L.P Phillips, Brownlow sen­tence com­mut­ed to life with­out parole, Newsradio 1080 KRLD, Dallas, January 22, 2021; Nomaan Merchant, Death Sentence Overturned for Texas Man Accused of Killing 5, Associated Press, February 122020.