WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court delivered a victory Monday to a death row inmate who said his lawyer snoozed through much of his trial, a possible prelude to broader examination of the quality of legal help available to poor defendants facing the death penalty.
The high court refused a request from Texas authorities, who wanted the court to reinstate a murder conviction and death sentence against Calvin Jerold Burdine, who claimed that his court-appointed lawyer slept for up to 10 minutes at a time during crucial phases of the 1984 trial.
"The Supreme Court has served justice today by finding it unacceptable that an attorney should flagrantly nap during a trial in which a man's life is at stake," said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of Amnesty International's Program to Abolish the Death Penalty.
The case now returns to Texas, where authorities must decide whether to retry Burdine or set him free. The state had argued that Burdine could not show his trial would have come out differently if his lawyer had stayed awake.
While not a ruling on the merits of Burdine's claim, the high court's action may be a sign that some justices remain attuned to longstanding complaints that overworked or underprepared lawyers are too often assigned to represent murder suspects too poor to hire a lawyer of their choice.
The Constitution guarantees the right to a lawyer, and the Supreme Court has previously said that means the right to an effective lawyer.
Burdine was convicted of stabbing to death his gay lover, W.T. "Dub" Wise, at the Houston trailer they shared in 1983. Burdine confessed to police, but later recanted. He now claims an accomplice actually killed Wise, while Burdine tried to talk him out of it.