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Saturday, July 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Death Sentence Thrown Out for California Killer

(CN) - A convicted murder represented by "woefully incompetent" counsel when sentenced to death should instead serve life in prison, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.

Because the San Quentin inmate in question has suffered "disturbing sexual abuse," his habeas petition was filed under seal.

The 85-page opinion is silent as to most identifying information in the case, and a footnote explains that the 9th Circuit "ordered the record unsealed for the limited purpose of discussing the evidence in this opinion."

In addition to replacing the inmate's name with Doe and the names of others with initials, the court also omitted citations to the procedural history of this case.

Another footnote offers a "brief timeline of Doe's life and criminal history."

"He grew up in the South," it says. "In 1976, at the age of 17, he was convicted of robbery and incarcerated in a state prison. He was released in 1982. By 1983, Doe had moved to California; he was convicted of murder there in 1984."

L.R., the woman Doe killed, babysat for the family near where Doe lived.

In his federal habeas petition, Doe complained that the attorney who represented him at sentencing failed to adequately investigate Doe's past and interview his friends and family members.

The 9th Circuit agreed Tuesday that such an investigation would have produced evidence that Doe's mother beat and neglected him from infancy, and that his uncle abused him as well, at one point even attempting to run him over with a car.

Evidence concerning Doe's "chilling, brutal experience in prison" after he was convicted at the age of 17 for robbing two women at gunpoint also could have "stirred sufficient compassion or understanding in the jury to result in a life sentence," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for a three-person panel.

It was at "a notorious prison in the South" where Doe suffered "the most disturbing of multiple episodes in a horrific series that stretched back to his birth," according to the ruling.

Though the attorney whose representation Doe is now challenging says the client never mentioned his rape during their conversations, Reinhardt said that "a lawyer has not fulfilled his duties to his client if he ceases investigating because his client has not been forthcoming about his background."

"There are often reasons why a person who has been chronically abused and neglected might well decline to disclose the details of difficult and embarrassing personal history," he said. "That Doe did not volunteer more about the trauma he experienced during his childhood and in prison did not absolve [the lawyer] of the need to conduct an adequate mitigation investigation.

"Doe simply did what most capital defendants - and most people - do, and did not volunteer deeply painful, shameful information when not pressed for details."

The ruling also faults Doe's attorney for failing to investigate the inmate's history of mental illness, a disease that has "ravaged" Doe in prison.

Though the lawyer hired a psychologist to interview Doe, this woman met with Doe for only an hour and provided a "relatively brief evaluation," the court found. The lawyer never asked her to provide expert assistance in preparing or presenting a mitigation case.

Reinhardt said that the lawyer also neglected to give attention to Doe's history of dependence on alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, and that he also did not prepare his penalty-phase witnesses before he called them to the stand, even though "witness preparation is a critical function of counsel."

"In short, the evidence that [the lawyer's] performance at the penalty phase fell well below the constitutional minimum is overwhelming," he said.

According to the opinion, the lawyer admitted after Doe was sentenced to death that he "did not adequately prepare for a penalty phase in this case because of a combination of inexperience and overconfidence."

"We cannot help but agree," Reinhardt said.

The panel returned the case to the state court to reduce Doe's sentence to life without parole, unless California decides to hold a new capital sentence proceeding.

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