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Monday, November 5, 2007

SCOTUS Accepts Death Penalty Case

Court_front_med From NYTimes.com: The SCOTUS agreed today to review the case of an Idaho death row inmate who was condemned after following his lawyer’s advice to reject a plea bargain that would have spared his life.      

Maxwell Hoffman was sentenced to death after being convicted of taking part in the murder of Denise Williams, a police informant in a drug deal, in 1987. Mr. Hoffman slit the victim’s throat and left her in a cave at a remote campsite, according to court papers.

When Ms. Williams tried to crawl to safety, she was stabbed by one of Mr. Hoffman’s accomplices. A third accomplice then joined with Mr. Hoffman in burying Ms. Williams under rocks, documents state. The victim died of a blow from a rock.

The justices will weigh whether the advice of Mr. Hoffman’s lawyer was so bad as to render it unconstitutionally ineffective. Courts have long held that a defense lawyer’s work need not be perfect, or anything close to it, and that a lawyer is entitled to wide latitude on trial tactics, even if they appear questionable in the clarity of hindsight.

Mr. Hoffman was sentenced to death in 1989. The Idaho state courts upheld the conviction and sentence, so the defendant turned to the federal courts. The case the justices accepted today is an appeal by the state of Idaho of a 2006 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. That court held that because of the ineffectiveness of Mr. Hoffman’s lawyer in the sentencing phase of the trial, the defendant should be released or allowed to accept the plea-bargain he originally rejected.

Five weeks before the trial began, prosecutors said that they would not seek the death penalty if Mr. Hoffman pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, but that they would seek a death sentence if he chose to go to trial.

Mr. Hoffman’s lawyer, William Wellman, believed at the time that Idaho’s death penalty-sentencing procedures would soon be declared unconstitutional because they were similar to those in Arizona, which had been voided by the Ninth Circuit. In particular, the lawyer was confident that the Idaho system of having a judge, not a jury, decide whether to impose a death sentence would be struck down.

In fact, several years after Mr. Hoffman’s conviction the Idaho procedure was changed to give jurors the final say on whether someone should be sentenced to death. And a 2002 Supreme Court decision, Ring v. Arizona, held that sentencing by judges alone is unconstitutional in death-penalty cases.

But, the Ninth Circuit noted, the Supreme Court “has also held that Ring is not to be applied retroactively.” Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]

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