Tuesday, May 15, 2007
The United States Supreme Court yesterday issued a 5-4 decision (Justice Thomas writing for the majority) overturning a Ninth Circuit order that had found that a district court abused its discretion by refusing to hold a hearing on a habeas petition. A Ninth Circuit panel decision denying relief had been overruled en banc. The petition had alleged ineffective assistance of counsel in a death penalty case. The defendant had prevented his attorney from presenting mitigating evidence in the penalty phase, telling the judge "I think if you want to give me the death penalty, just bring it on. I'm ready for it."
The majority concluded that the claim was never presented to the state court and that an evidentiary hearing was thus barred. Further, no specific colloquy on waiver of the right to present mitigating evidence is required and the defendant "clearly understood the consequences" of his decision to forego such evidence.
The dissenters (Justice Stevens joined by Justices Souter, Breyer and Ginsburg) focus on the fact that significant mitigating evidence of a serious psychological problem that shed light on the defendant's conduct was unknown at the time of trial and sentencing. "No one, not even the Court, seriously contends that counsel's investigation of possible mitigating evidence was constitutionally sufficient." The dissent takes strong issue with the suggestion of a knowing waiver of rights, suggesting that the defendant is at least entitled to a hearing. Further, "the Court thoroughly misrepresents [the defendant's] mitigating evidence" and "ignores [his] organic brain disorder, which would have explained not only his criminal history but also his repeated outbursts at sentencing." (Mike Frisch)