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Court to consider poor-counsel claim in death row cases

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court opened a fresh inquiry Monday into bad lawyering and the death penalty, accepting a case that could give justices a chance to spell out when inmates can claim that poor representation led to conviction.

The court already sided with prosecutors twice this year in ineffective-counsel cases. The latest appeal is less procedural and gives the justices a better opportunity to deal with the legal rights of people who face execution.

Defendants in capital cases often cannot afford to hire lawyers, so government-paid attorneys are appointed for them. The quality of those lawyers has troubled some Supreme Court members in recent years, and two justices have publicly criticized the quality of death penalty lawyers.

The court's announcement that it would review the case of a man put on Maryland's death row for drowning an elderly woman gave opponents of capital punishment hope that worry about ineffective counsel will be reflected in the court's rule-making.

"I think it signals there's enough people on the court who are aware how terrible the representation is around the country and are willing to hear a case to address it," said Steven Hawkins, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Way to clarify appeals

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said nearly every death row inmate claims ineffective counsel, and justices can use this case to clarify how the appeals should be reviewed.

In the past year, justices declared unconstitutional the execution of mentally retarded murderers and said juries, not judges, must decide issues that determine if a particular case warrants the death penalty.

Kevin Eugene Wiggins' appeal becomes the fifth death penalty case that the Supreme Court will consider this term, an indication of the court's intense interest in the subject. The other four involve mechanics of imposing capital punishment; the Wiggins' case could be the most far-reaching of the five.

The Supreme Court refused to overturn Wiggins' conviction, but justices will consider whether his appointed lawyers did enough investigating into his background to collect sympathetic evidence for jurors considering his fate.

At issue are Wiggins' rights under the Constitution's Sixth Amendment, which guarantees defendants a lawyer.

Jury not told

Public defenders did not tell the jury that Wiggins was beaten and raped as a child after being put in foster care when his abusive and alcoholic mother abandoned him. He was homeless at times and may be mentally retarded, his new lawyers contend.

Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening suspended executions in that state this year while a study is conducted into whether capital punishment is used in a racially discriminatory way. Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich has said he will lift the moratorium after he takes office in January.

A federal judge threw out Wiggins' conviction and death sentence, but an appeals court reinstated them.

The victim, a 77-year-old woman, was drowned in the tub of her Baltimore County apartment. There was no evidence linking Wiggins to the crime, but he was found driving her car.


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