Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of July 202020

NEWS (7/21 & 7/22/20) — Texas: Split panels of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit have upheld the convictions and death sentences imposed on Erica Sheppard (pictured) and Anibal Canales.

The trial court had reversed Sheppard’s death sentence on grounds that her lawyer had provided ineffective assistance in the penalty phase of trial, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, saying that counsel’s minimal presentation of mitigating evidence had not been prejudicial. The U.S. federal district court then overturned her death sentence for counsel’s ineffectiveness, but by a 2-1 vote, the Fifth Circuit reversed. Judges Jerry Smith and Catharina Haynes agreed that Sheppard had been provided deficient representation but upheld her death sentence on the grounds that the Texas appeals court prejudice ruling was not unreasonable.

In dissent, Senior Judge Carolyn Dineen King noted that Sheppard “was sentenced to death by a jury that did not know that she has brain damage and the cognitive ability of a fourteen-year-old. And the jury heard only isolated snippets of the extensive abuse and trauma that she suffered throughout her life. Unlike the majority,” she wrote, “I cannot shrug off these important matters as mere cumulative evidence. I therefore agree with the state trial court and the district court below that Sheppard was prejudiced by her counsel’s deficient performance.”

The three judges also denied a claim that prosecutors had discriminatorily excluded African-American jurors from serving in Sheppard’s case.

A different panel of the circuit court divided 2-1 on whether Anibal Canales had received ineffective representation in the penalty phase of his capital trial. Judge Haynes, joined by Judge Leslie Southwick, ruled that the aggravating evidence in the case outweighed the extensive mitigating evidence Canales’ lawyer failed to investigate and present.

Dissenting, Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote: “The State put it best: ‘It’s an incredibly sad tribute that when a man’s life is on the line, about the only good thing we can say about him is he’s a good artist.’ That sharp sarcasm of the prosecutor’s jury argument had bite only because defense counsel left Andy Canales’s story untold. The jury heard only of Canales’s crimes and artistic abilities, not of a tragic childhood rife with violence, sexual abuse, poverty, neglect, and homelessness, nor of a man beset by PTSD, a failing heart, and the dangers of prison life.” Writing that “[o]ur adversarial system works only when it is adversarial,” Judge Higginbotham said defense counsel for Canales had “wholly failed in his duty” to present a case for life.

NEWS (7/22/20) — South Carolina: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has denied habeas corpus relief to South Carolina death-row prisoner Freddie Owens.

Owens had twice been unconstitutionally tried and sentenced to death. The federal appeals court ruled that Owens’ court-appointed counsel in his third capital sentencing trial and his initial state postconviction proceeding were not ineffective, despite failing to investigate and present evidence of brain damage, including frontal lobe abnormalities in his brain that habeas corpus counsel had documented through neuroimaging tests.

NEWS (7/22/20) — Ohio: The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the conviction and death sentence of Lance Hundley on direct appeal.

In December 2016, a trial court in Youngstown deemed Hundley mentally competent to stand trial. Hundley repeatedly waived his right to counsel at various stages of his trial, including at a hearing over the suppression of evidence and later in the penalty phase of his trial. After waiving counsel, he then presented no mitigating evidence. In affirming his death sentence, the court stressed: “There is nothing in Hundley’s background that is mitigating, and he presented no mitigating evidence. … Mitigating factors are nonexistent.”

Hundley may now either petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case or begin the process of state post-conviction appeals.


Peter Hayes, Death Penalty OK Though Jury Not Told of Accused’s Brain Damage, Bloomberg Law, July 23, 2020; Jacklyn Wille, Death Row Inmate Loses Appeal Over Brain Abnormality Evidence, Bloomberg Law, July 23, 2020; Kathleen Dailey, Texas Man’s Death Sentence Upheld by Divided Fifth Circuit, Bloomberg Law, July 22, 2020; Joe Gorman, Ohio Supreme Court upholds death sen­tence for man who fatal­ly beat Youngstown woman, WKBN News, July 222020.

Read the court’s opin­ions in Sheppard v. Davis, Canales v. Davis, Owens v. Stirling, and State v. Hundley.