Thursday, March 16, 2017
Court overturns life sentence on murder conviction due to counsel's lack of advocacy
"Ladies and gentlemen given the dispatch with which you resolved all the holes in the government’s case that I spent two days pointing out, it’s apparent to me that I’m some how not communicated with you during the first part of the trial. So I don’t intend to take anymore of your time in this part."
That argument was apparently the sum of defense set forth in a death penalty penalty phase proceeding. Defense counsel, in addition to making the above bare bones argument, refused to make an opening statement, did not present any evidence in mitigation, and did not object or make any suggested additions or changes to the jury instructions. The jury suggested a sentence of life, which the court imposed.
The Sixth Circuit, reviewing the matter for habeas relief, found that counsel's conduct (or lack thereof) amounted to ineffective representation warranting habeas relief. Phillips v. White, 15-5629 "[C]ourts are generally reluctant to accept something as stark as not investigating or presenting mitigating evidence at capital sentencing as a reasonable tactic. Failing to argue against the death penalty and advocate for a lesser sentence is even less reasonable. For these reasons, Charles’s sentencing performance was clearly deficient." In fact, the Court found that counsel did so little in defense that prejudice would be presumed.
As a side note, the State had tried to argue that Phillips 2254 petition should be dismissed for failing to exhaust his state remedies. But the Court noted that the state court had simply never ruled on Phillips claims, despite having them since 2008 (it didn't help that the state sentencing judge, while holding on to the claim, himself got indicted and convicted of a criminal charge.) Under the circumstances, the "inordinate delay" allowed the claims to be adjudicated by the federal courts.