Court rejects death sentence, citing poor legal counsel

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday threw out yet another sentence for a death row inmate, issuing a warning to state courts in a 17-year-old Pennsylvania case that shoddy defense work wouldn't be tolerated.

The justices have been particularly active in death penalty issues this session, making it unlawful to execute juveniles, scolding prosecutors for stacking a jury on racial lines and ruling it was unconstitutional to force defendants to appear before juries in chains during a trial's penalty phase.

Competency of legal counsel is perhaps the biggest unresolved death penalty issue now that the court has said juveniles and the mentally retarded may not be executed.

A recent ruling by justices will make defense attorneys more vigorously investigate capital defendants' past records for evidence that might save their lives.

The ruling was cheered by death penalty opponents for its close scrutiny of ineffective assistance of counsel claims, by far the most commonly used defense by death row inmates. Supporters of capital punishment, meanwhile, sought to minimize its impact.

Justice David H. Souter, writing for the majority, said public defenders were wrong when they failed to review records showing mitigating evidence of Rompilla's possible mental illness and a traumatic upbringing, even after prosecutors warned that they planned to use the documents against him.

"It flouts prudence to deny that a defense lawyer should try to look at a file he knows the prosecution will cull for aggravating evidence, let alone when the file is sitting in the trial courthouse, open for the asking," Souter wrote, citing in part a violation of American Bar Association standards on lawyer competency.

He was joined by other members of the court's more liberal wing -- Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer -- as well as Reagan appointee Sandra Day O'Connor, who provided the swing vote.

In a biting dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy blasted the majority for imposing a new, "rigid requirement" forcing defense attorneys to review voluminous files prosecutors might possibly use. He said Rompilla's attorneys had reasonably relied on testimony from mental health experts and family members.

"We have reminded federal courts often of the need to show the requisite level of deference to state court judgments," Kennedy wrote. "This elevation of needle-in-haystack claims to the status of constitutional violations will benefit undeserving defendants and saddle states with the considerable costs of retrial and/or resentencing."

O'Connor filed a separate opinion emphasizing that her conclusion was based on the remarkable circumstances of Rompilla's case and should not be read too broadly. Other competency of legal counsel claims must continue to be decided case by case, she said.

"In the particular circumstances of this case, the attorneys' failure to obtain and review the case file from their client's prior conviction did not meet standards of reasonable professional judgment," O'Connor wrote.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who during his 33 years on the court has pushed with some success for less federal court review of capital trials, joined the dissent along with fellow conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Last week, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 to overturn the conviction of death row inmate Thomas Miller-El, who said Texas prosecutors unfairly stacked his jury with whites.

And earlier this year, the court ruled 5-4 that it was unconstitutional to execute juvenile killers, ending a practice in 19 states that has been roundly condemned by nations abroad. That ruling has since by criticized by some members of Congress for ignoring the will of state legislatures that favor capital punishment.

The case is Rompilla v. Beard, 04-5462.

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The ruling in Rompilla v. Beard is available at:

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