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Death-Row Suicide Won’t Interfere With Habeas

(CN) - Habeas relief may still be available to the death-row inmate who committed suicide before the ineffective-counsel hearing he obtained, the 9th Circuit ruled.

Gregory Dickens died of an apparent suicide on Jan. 27, four days after the full 9th Circuit ruled that new evidence of Dickens' health conditions altered his previously exhausted claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The court refused Tuesday to vacate that opinion and dismiss the habeas petition as moot.

"No party disputes that we had jurisdiction at the time we decided this case. The untimely death of Dickens after our decision had been rendered does not 'deprive [this] court of jurisdiction retroactively,'" the unsigned order states.

Allowing the ruling to stand prejudices only the defense because Dickens is not alive for the hearing to which he would have been entitled, the judges said.

"The precedent set by the en banc panel in this case will undoubtedly affect cases now pending before this court," according to the order. "We see no reason to undo this precedent and force future panels to duplicate out efforts by re-deciding issues we have already resolved within the contours of article III."

Judge Consuelo Callahan, who was part of the initial dissent in January, again challenged the majority Tuesday.

Her paragraph-long opinion questions only the majority's reading of Martinez v. Ryan , which found that substantial ineffective assistance of counsel could establish cause for the default of an ineffective assistance claim.

"The en banc court divided on the Martinez issue and on another major issue, each of which might have received Supreme Court attention, neither of which will now," Callahan wrote.

Dickens was sentenced to death on felony murder and armed robbery charges after he provided Travis Amaral with a .38-caliber revolver used to kill Bryan and Laura Bernstein in 1991. The Bernsteins were stopped at a rest stop in Yuma, Ariz., when Amaral robbed the couple, shot them both in the head, and left the stop in a car Dickens drove.

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