(CN) – Citing “exceptionally poor representation” at trial, the 9th Circuit threw out the death sentence of a California man convicted of murdering his pregnant wife to cash in on a $100,000 life insurance policy.
Michael Allen Hamilton was convicted of fatally shooting his wife in the throat and chest after a couple of botched assassination attempts. The fetus died from lack of oxygen.
One of Hamilton’s sisters eventually told police about the plan, as Hamilton had asked her to kill his wife for $10,000 of the insurance money. When she moved to Texas, he turned to another sister, Carolyn, and one of her acquaintances to get the job done. When they failed to carry out the killing, Hamilton did it himself.
The Pasadena-based appeals panel upheld his first-degree murder conviction, citing the “overwhelming evidence of Hamilton’s guilt.”
“In light of this evidence,” Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote, “defense counsel’s failure to prepare effectively for the penalty phase of Hamilton’s trial is all the more egregious.”
The court said Hamilton’s attorney never investigated or offered evidence of Hamilton’s traumatic childhood, including his being placed in foster care after his father was arrested on charges of incest with Hamilton’s sister.
Defense counsel also failed to properly investigate Hamilton’s mental health history and mental state at trial, which could have served as mitigating factors, the court wrote. And his attorney compounded the problem by presenting “almost none of the little mitigating evidence” he had discovered, the court added.
“It is difficult to imagine a more significant discrepancy than that between the portrait painted at the penalty phase of a man whose childhood was ‘unfortunate’ but largely unmarred, and that of a child who was raised in the presence of incest, rape and violence, suffered from mental illness, and was shuffled from home to home,” Wardlaw wrote.
“Counsel’s anemic presentation resulted from a number of unjustifiable errors, which, taken together, render his performance deficient,” she added.
The court ordered the lower court to either convert Hamilton’s sentence to life in prison or conduct a new trial for resentencing.